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Syria death toll passes 136,000 Future talks uncertain

DAMASCUS, Feb 1, (Agencies): The death toll in Syria’s civil war has topped 136,000 after January saw one of the conflict’s bloodiest months, an NGO said Saturday, as violence claimed even more lives. But the prospects of a peaceful outcome looked dim after 10 days of talks in Geneva yielded no tangible results and the regime said it was unsure whether it would return to the negotiating table. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll at the end of January was at least 136,227. The Britain-based group’s director, Rami Abdel Rahman, said “January was among the bloodiest months since the beginning of the conflict” in March 2011.

Among the dead were 47,998 civilians, including more than 7,300 children. The Observatory said the real toll could be much higher because of the extreme secrecy of rebels, jihadists and the regime about their casualties. At the end of December the toll was 130,433, but fighting between rebels and the regime, as well as between them and jihadists, has claimed nearly 6,000 lives since then. The conflict began after a regime crackdown on peaceful anti-government demonstrations, prompting people to take up arms against President Bashar al-Assad. In addition to the dead and a much larger number of wounded, millions of people have been displaced internally and as refugees in neighbouring countries. There was no let-up in the bloodletting on Saturday, with at least nine people killed when regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory said. At least another seven died in a double car bombing carried out by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant targeting a rebel headquarters in Aleppo.

Moderate and Islamist opposition fighters have been battling ISIL since early January, after accusing the group of a spate of abuses against civilians and rebels. Meanwhile, in the central province of Hama, the Observatory said at least 12 government fighters were killed around the town of Morek. The group said rebels, including from the al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, had seized Morek overnight, cutting a strategic regime supply line from Hama city to two military bases in neighbouring Idlib province. And in neighbouring Lebanon, a car bomb killed at least four people and wounded 15 at a petrol station in the eastern town of Hermel, a stronghold of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah near the border, the army said.

The attack is the seventh targeting Hezbollah strongholds since the group said it had sent men to Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces against mainly Sunni rebels. Meanwhile, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said it had distributed aid for a third consecutive day to the Yarmuk refugee camp, which has been under a choking siege that the Observatory says has left 88 people dead from starvation and lack of medical care. On the diplomatic front, the two sides and world powers were assessing the 10 days of talks in Switzerland last month which showed few results, and with prospects of a follow-up meeting uncertain. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was blunt after the final session Friday, saying “we have not reached tangible results”.

Despite persistent pressure from UNArab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, and co-sponsors Russia and the United States, regime and rebel delegations failed to agree on a single point. On Saturday, Muallem dismissed what he branded the “coalition of the so-called ‘opposition’”, and said it had been a “stain” on them that they had refused to sign a declaration condemning “terrorism” in Syria. The regime had sought to focus discussions on “terrorism” — its term for those seeking Assad’s overthrow. Muallem also took US Secretary of State John Kerry to task for insisting at the opening of the “Geneva II” conference that Assad “will not be part” of any transitional government. And he repeated earlier assertions that his team would await guidance from Damascus before announcing whether it would attend further talks, tentatively set for Feb 10. The United Nations’ secretary-general pressed the US and Russia to help ensure that peace talks aimed at stemming Syria’s civil war can soon resume, while Russia’s foreign minister said Saturday that it is “very difficult” to push Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to make concessions.

A week of peace talks ended in Geneva on Friday with no concrete progress and no immediate commitment from Assad’s envoys to return on Feb 10 for more meetings with the Western-backed opposition as suggested by mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a conference of global security officials in Munich that he urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting on the sidelines “to use their influence to ensure the talks proceed as scheduled on Feb 10.” The US has insisted that Assad cannot be part of a transitional government and has lost his legitimacy to lead, while Russia has been a key ally of Assad’s government. Ban urged the warring parties to “come back with more sense of earnestness as well as seriousness and urgency.” Specifically, he called on “both sides and the government in particular to allow the unfettered access required under international humanitarian law.”

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