24 killed in bombing

Syrian regime, rebels attend Russian-backed talks

AL-BAB: Turkey backed Syrian opposition fighters walk with their weapons in the northeastern outskirts of the Syrian town of Al-Bab, as fighters advance towards the town which is the last stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria’s Aleppo’s province. — AFP

BEIRUT: Turkish bombardment of an Islamic State group-held town in Syria has killed 24 civilians, a monitor said yesterday, but Turkey’s army said only “terrorists” died in the operation. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead in air strikes and shelling on the town of Al-Bab in the last 24 hours included 11 children. Turkey’s army, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency said it had killed 15 “terrorists” in air strikes, artillery fire and clashes.

Al-Bab is IS’s final stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo and has come under fierce attack by Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels in recent months. The joint force entered Al-Bab over the weekend, and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the town had “largely been taken under control.” The Observatory however said Turkish forces had made little progress since entering the town from the west. Turkey began military operations in Syria in August, targeting both IS and Kurdish fighters. Initially its forces advanced quickly, but they stalled around Al-Bab in December.

The town is also a key target for Syrian government forces, who had been advancing towards from the south. But they have yet to enter Al-Bab, instead focused on clearing IS-held territory in the surrounding countryside in recent days. More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests. The war has displaced over half the country’s population and drawn in jihadists and international militaries.

Russian-backed talks
Meanwhile, representatives from the Syrian government and rebel groups held fresh talks yesterday with key powerbrokers Russia, Turkey and Iran aimed at shoring up a fragile ceasefire. The meeting is the second time key players Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have brought the warring sides together, and comes ahead of a new round of UN-led talks on Syria in Geneva on February 23. The latest round of discussions is expected to focus mostly on bolstering a faltering six-week truce and has been billed as a prelude to broader negotiations in Geneva.

The regional brokers met separately for talks with regime and rebel delegates on Thursday in the Kazakh capital Astana. It appeared unlikely that the two sides would meet one-on-one, but a plenary session involving all parties was scheduled. A first set of talks on Syria that took place in Astana in January saw the rebels refuse to talk directly to the regime and did not result in any significant breakthrough. Rebel spokesman Yehya Al-Aridi said the opposition was sending a “smaller” delegation than the one it sent for the talks last month.

The rebels, who initially cast doubt over their participation in the latest meeting, will be led by Mohammad Alloush, a leading figure of the Army of Islam (Jaish Al-Islam), he confirmed. The Syrian regime is represented in Astana by its ambassador to the UN, Bashar Al-Jaafari. Moscow has increasingly taken the lead on pushing talks over Syria after its military intervention on the side of leader Bashar al-Assad helped turn the tables in the protracted conflict. While Russia and Iran back the regime with military might, Turkey has supported rebels fighting to oust Assad.- Agencies

This article was published on 16/02/2017