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Syria rebel factions to attend Russia, Turkey-backed talks

Syria rebel factions to attend Russia, Turkey-backed talks

BEIRUT (AP) — Representatives of some Syrian rebel groups said Monday they will attend talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey scheduled later this month, despite mounting violations of a cease-fire across the war-ravaged country.

A rebel adviser said the talks between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, to be held in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, will initially focus on ways to strengthen and monitor the cease-fire that went into effect Dec. 30.

Opposition activists have reported widespread violence around Syria. Although the scale of the violence was not comparable to the government-led, Russian-backed offensive against Aleppo that preceded the cease-fire, airstrikes and shelling were reported in at least eight of Syria's 14 provinces Monday.

The cease-fire excludes areas where the militant Islamic State group operates. There, too, fighting raged as militants closed in on a government military base while Turkey-backed and Kurdish-backed fighters clashed with the extremist group in three provinces.

Faced with the ongoing violations, members of Syrian armed groups have been meeting in Turkey for days to decide on whether to participate and with what delegates. Syrian representatives said the Turkish government, one of the few remaining backers of the opposition, was keen on convening the talks. They are scheduled for Jan. 23. U.N. sponsored talks will follow in Geneva in February.

On Monday, Syrian rebel group members and an adviser to the fighting groups said the Astana talks will focus on violations of the cease-fire and ways to reinforce it.

"The first sessions will be to study the violations and implementation of the cease-fire," said Molhem Akidi, a leading member of the Fastaqim group. The group was a leading fighting force in Aleppo before its fighters left as part of a Russia-Turkey brokered deal.

Akidi said the High Negotiations Committee, a political group that represented the opposition in the last Geneva talks, will provide support and technical help for the delegation.

Osama Abo Zayd, a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army rebel groups, said the first round of talks will last for four days and focus solely on ways to monitor cease-fire violations.

Abo Zayd said Moscow has promised to rein in violations of the cease-fire by government and allied troops. If a mechanism is worked out, there will be a phase two of the talks, he told the opposition-linked Revolutionary Forces of Syria online. "If Russia doesn't live up to its promises after phase one, Russia, Iran and the regime will be the main cause of fighting in Syria," he said.

Abo Zayed and Akidi said Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria's largest rebel groups, was not participating in the talks but support the delegation going. The other powerful group, Fatah al-Sham Front, is not included in the cease-fire, according to the government, and is considered linked to al-Qaida.

The talks are considered a diplomatic feat for Moscow. After withstanding a crippling, months-long siege and punishing bombing campaign, the opposition surrendered one of its most prized urban centers, Aleppo. Rebel groups had control of nearly half of the city, once Syria's commercial center, since 2012.

The United States was left out of the cease-fire agreement and it is not clear if the new administration will attend the talks next week.

Rebel fighters and government allied troops have exchanged blame on who is responsible for violating the current cease-fire.

On Monday, fighting mostly raged in the Barada Valley, near the Syrian capital. Clashes escalated between pro-government and opposition forces in and around a number of rebel-run villages as Syrian troops and allied militias advance toward the flashpoint area of Ain al-Fijeh, which holds the main water source for the Syrian capital.

Pro-government media reported new government advances southeast of Ain al-Fijeh.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the Syrian war, said there was fighting in Aleppo when rebel groups fired mortars at a government-held neighborhood. Airplanes bombed rebel areas outside the city and violence was also reported in six other provinces.

Also on Monday, the heads of several major U.N. organizations called for access to civilians cut off from humanitarian aid in Syria. The joint appeal urged an "immediate, unconditional and safe access" to all Syrians in need. According to the statement, up to 700,000 people — nearly half of them children — live in 15 besieged areas of Syria.

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Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Davos, Switzerland, and Hashem Osseiran in Beirut contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show that fighting against IS militants is going on in three provinces.

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