Syria Government Team Joins Peace Talks Amid Aleppo ClashesTHE ASSOCIATED PRESS (JAMEY KEATEN and PHILIP ISSA)
Geneva (AP) -- The U.N.'s special envoy to Syria met with a government delegation as part of peace talks in Geneva on Friday as humanitarian workers warned that fighting in Syria's north was triggering a new wave of civilian displacement.
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said he had "constructive and fruitful" discussions with Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and said his delegation proposed "amendments" to the de Mistura's blueprint for negotiations.
Ja'afari's brief comments to reporters suggested the government is still focusing on the basic principles toward a political solution in Syria, and not yet willing to consider what de Mistura calls the "mother of all issues" — political transition away from President Bashar Assad's rule.
De Mistura met with delegates from the High Negotiations Committee, an umbrella opposition coalition backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other Western powers, later in the day.
The committee said it was distrustful of the government's intentions.
HNC representative Asaad al-Zoubi blasted the government for "sending a strong message that it doesn't want a political solution but it's seeking a military solution that will bring destruction to the whole country."
The discussions came as fighting escalated between pro-government forces, rebels, and the Islamic State group throughout Syria, and especially in its north.
Around 30,000 displaced persons have fled from their shelters near the Turkish border as battles intensified between opposition fighters and the Islamic State group, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as MSF or Doctors Without Borders, said it was "extremely worried" about their security and access to health care. The international medical relief organization said it knew of just five operating hospitals in the Azaz district, where much of the violence is concentrated.
Muskilda Zancada, head of the MSF mission in Syria, said the situation on the ground "remains very unpredictable."
Opposition groups in the north are also under renewed pressure from pro-government forces, which have launched a new offensive to besiege the rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria's largest city.
Commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army said government forces are preparing an offensive on Aleppo, and opposition fighters are waiting to see if world powers can keep a tenuous cease-fire afloat before deciding whether to continue supporting peace talks in Geneva.
In comments on the sidelines of the talks, Abu Ossama Al-Jolani accused Assad's government of trying to "destroy" a truce brokered by Russia and the U.S. He said FSA fighters who now support the talks are waiting for "those who decided that this truce should start" to determine whether it's holding.
Earlier in the day, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 pro-government fighters and 20 militants, including members of Syria's al-Qaida affiliate known as the Nusra Front, were killed north of Aleppo in the previous 24 hours.
The al-Qaida branch and its more powerful rival, the Islamic State group, are not part of a cease-fire that went into effect at the end of February. The truce has held in most of Syria, except in the north, where it has practically collapsed. The Nusra Front is deeply rooted in the areas in northern Syria controlled by opposition forces, complicating the oversight of the truce.
IS militants have clashed with both rival insurgents and pro-government forces in Aleppo, making a wide advance on opposition-held territory along the Turkish border, the Observatory said Thursday.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Turkish border guards fired on hundreds of Syrian civilians fleeing the IS onslaught on Thursday and heading for a wall at the border. The rights group urged Ankara to allow thousands of Syrians fleeing to cross into Turkey to seek protection.
"As civilians flee ISIS fighters, Turkey is responding with live ammunition instead of compassion," said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at Human Rights Watch, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group.
"The whole world is talking about fighting ISIS, and yet those most at risk of becoming victims of its horrific abuses are trapped on the wrong side of a concrete wall," he added.
Turkish officials say they were aware of the report but had no immediate response. There was no information whether any of the civilians were hurt in the shooting.
The Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee, which is negotiating in Geneva, has accused the Syrian government of over 2,000 breaches of the cease-fire.
De Mistura has said he hopes for a substantive round of "proximity talks" on a transitional government to end the war. The two warring Syrian sides do not actually talk to one another in Geneva but each meets separately with the U.N. envoy.
The most obvious public difference between the two sides revolves around the fate of Assad. Opposition representatives have insisted that Assad be removed from power as part of any peace deal, while government officials have declared Assad to be a red line.
This round of talks began Wednesday in Geneva but the government said it was delayed because of parliamentary elections that were held this week in government-controlled areas of Syria. The opposition has dismissed the balloting as a sham and said it could further undermine the peace talks.
Issa reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.