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IS captures several villages from Syrian troops in Aleppo

BEIRUT, April 16, (Agencies): The Islamic State group has captured more than a dozen villages and hills during a fresh offensive in northern Syria, opposition activists said Saturday. The IS territorial gains bring the extremist group close to the main highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the country’s largest city of Aleppo.

IS also clashed with rival insurgent groups near the border with Turkey where they have been on the offensive for days, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee toward safer areas near Turkey. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting between IS and government forces is concentrated in areas east of the town of Khanaser, which has changed hands several times in recent months. An activist based in Aleppo told The Associated Press via Skype that IS launched its latest offensive in the area a day earlier and by Saturday was in control of some 18 small villages. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from IS. Khanaser is strategic since it’s on the highway that links government-held parts of Aleppo with the rest of the country.

The extremist group has cut the highway several times in recent months but government counteroffensives were able to push them back. The Observatory said traffi c on the highway was interrupted by IS shelling of the area on Saturday before resuming as usual.

To the north, IS continued in its offensive near the Turkish border capturing the village of Tal Shaaer from opposition fighters. “Daesh is advancing against the regime and the rebels at the same time,” said the Aleppo-based activist. Around 30,000 displaced persons have fl ed from their shelters near the Turkish border, 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 the displaced people’s 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 fighting is concentrated. The violence came as Syrian government and opposition delegations are taking part in indirect peace talks in Geneva aiming to end the country’s five-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 and displaced half of Syria’s population. Near the city of Aleppo where government forces have been on the offensive for days, the situation was relatively calm Saturday after rebels captured some areas back from government forces, the Aleppo- based activist said.

Meanwhile, there is an “urgent need” for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop violating the ceasefire in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday, and called on Russia to help, the State Department said.

It said Kerry, in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, said “The United States expected Russia to urge the regime to comply with the cessation and that we would work with the opposition to do the same.” The United States knows that some of the Syrian government actions in and around the city of Aleppo are being backed by Russian air strikes, State Depart spokesman John Kirby said at a news briefing.

He said Kerry made clear to Lavrov that the United States was concerned about credible reports of violation in and around Aleppo, “and to the degree that they are aided and abetted by Russian air strikes – yes that’s a matter of concern for us.” While urging Russia to press the Syrian government to stop the violations, Kerry “promised that we would do the same on our part for the opposition groups that we are supporting,” the spokesman said.

The United Nation’s envoy to Syria sounded out the opposition at talks in Geneva on the idea that President Bashar al-Assad could stay on in power symbolically, two opposition sources said on Saturday, but they both had summarily dismissed it. UN mediator Staffan de Mistura reconvened indirect talks on Wednesday saying a political transition would be the main focus of the current round of the peace talks, which aim to end Syria’s five-yearold war. More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Just a few days into the new round, the negotiations appear more fragile than ever with increased fighting near Aleppo threatening to undermine a shaky truce. The government delegation after arriving on Friday also sought to steer the new round away from discussion of a transition. Two opposition sources said that in a meeting late on Friday with the High Negotiations Committee de Mistura had brought up an idea, among others, that would see Assad remain in power symbolically.

In return the opposition would choose three vice-presidents, who would be handed military and executive powers. “There were no details and it’s not something that we are taking seriously,” said one opposition official.

The opposition sources said de Mistura had not presented the idea as something he was specifically proposing. The mere suggestion of Assad staying in power is likely to further complicate talks with both sides already trading barbs and the situation on the ground worsening.

Syrian government air strikes in rebelheld areas north of the city of Homs have taken place over the last few days coupled with a surge in fighting in Aleppo that was already starting to challenge a fragile cessation of hostilities deal agreed in February between the United States and Russia. A senior Western diplomat close to the talks said that while the idea was unlikely to be de Mistura’s personal view, it was seemed clumsy given the sensitivity of the subject. “If this story continues to spread and is not denied quickly it has the potential to cause real problems,” said the diplomat.

“It’s having a catastrophic effect in Aleppo, where the fighters are already wary of de Mistura and fear a deal is being struck behind the scenes.” Syria’s opposition has rejected a proposal from the UN envoy that would have kept Bashar al-Assad as president during a political transition, with three deputies of his opponents’ choosing. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told Syria’s opposition attending peace talks in Geneva that the proposal could end the “vicious cycle” of debate over a transitional period to end the war, a source told AFP on Saturday.

On the ground, tens of thousands of Syrians are at risk of being displaced as clashes between rebels and jihadists intensified in the country’s north. The escalating fighting across swathes of Aleppo province has threatened to collapse a fragile ceasefire and derail the latest round of indirect negotiations in Switzerland between the regime and opposition

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