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Dutch Labour Party supports air strikes against IS in Syria – Islamic State bombing kills two dozens in Homs

AMSTERDAM, Jan 26, (Agencies): The Dutch Labour Party, the junior partner in the coalition government, now supports extending air strikes against Islamic State to Syria, creating a parliamentary majority for approval, an official said on Tuesday.

The Dutch government, which already approved sending warplanes to target Islamic State in Iraq under a US-led bombing campaign, has been weighing the possibility of expanding its role for months. “We discussed the issue today and decided to support efforts to intensify the fight against Islamic State,” party spokesman Michiel Selten said. “It is now up to the Cabinet to come up with a proposal, but we are willing.” The Netherlands contributes a squadron of six F-16 aircraft to the bombing of the Islamist group’s positions in Iraq, but Labour is traditionally warier of foreign military engagements than the larger conservative Liberal coalition partner.

France and Britain widened their bombing campaigns in the region into neighbouring Syria after the attacks in Paris in November, claimed by the Islamic State. Meanwhile, a bomb attack claimed by Islamic State in the Syrian governmentcontrolled city of Homs kiled at least 24 people on Tuesday. The governor of Homs said the first of two explosions was caused by a car bomb which targeted a security checkpoint. A suicide bomber then set off an explosive belt, state media reported. “We know we are targets for terrorists, especially now the (Syrian) army is advancing and local reconciliation agreements are being implemented,” the governor told Reuters by phone. Seventeen people are still in hospital, one of whom is in a critical condition, the governor said. Syrian state TV earlier reported 22 people had died and more than 100 people had been injured.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 29. It said those killed in the explosions, which took place in a mostly Alawite district, included 15 members of government forces and pro-government militiamen. Syria’s regime seized a strategic southern town from rebel forces, as leading opposition representatives debated whether to attend peace talks in Geneva this week.

The capture of Sheikh Miskeen in southern Daraa province is the latest victory for government forces, who have been on the offensive since ally Russia began strikes in the country in late September. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday his country’s intervention had helped “turn around” the situation in Syria, “reducing the territory controlled by terrorists.” Syria’s army, in a statement, said the capture of Sheikh Miskeen on Tuesday was “a hard blow for terrorist groups” noting that it followed victories by “our brave soldiers in Latakia, Aleppo and Hama.” Sheikh Miskeen lies on a vital crossroads between Damascus to the north and the government-controlled city of Sweida to the east.

A Syrian security source earlier told AFP the town was a “launching pad” for rebel operations, and one of the opposition’s “centres of gravity for the whole of Daraa province”. The Syrian Kurdish PYD party expects to be invited to peace talks planned later this week in Geneva, but it is not yet clear in what capacity they will be there, the party’s joint leader Saleh Muslim said on Tuesday. “We will be invited, but we still don’t know in what position,” Saleh Muslim, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), told Reuters. The invitations are expected to be sent on Tuesday. Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been calling for the PYD to be included in the opposition delegation, but the Saudi-backed Sunni Arab opposition has rejected that idea. Turkey, another backer of the rebellion, has also opposed the PYD’s participation in peace talks in the opposition ranks.

The United Nations invited Syria’s government and opposition to peace talks in Geneva on Friday, but it remained unclear whether Saudi-backed opponents of President Bashar al-Assad would overcome their objections to attending. The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, sent out invitations to the delayed talks on Tuesday, without saying who had been invited or how many groups might participate. Earlier, the opposition cast doubt on whether it would go to Geneva, accusing the United States of adopting unacceptable Iranian and Russian ideas for solving the conflict. Opposition official Asaad al-Zoubi told Arabic news channel Al-Hadath that he was pessimistic, though the final decision would be taken at an opposition meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday.

The Geneva talks are expected to last for months, with diplomats shuttling between rival delegations in separate rooms. The Syrian government, which is clawing back territory from the rebels with the help of Russian air strikes and Iranian ground forces, has already said it will attend. The opposition comprising the recently formed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has however repeatedly said the government and its allies must halt bombardments and lift blockades of besieged areas before it will join talks. Air strikes by the Russian military in support of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have helped turn the tide in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

Lavrov said that the Russian air force’s strikes had “really helped to turn around the situation in the country, helped towards reducing the territory controlled by terrorists” since Moscow launched a bombing campaign at Assad’s request on Sept 30. Russia’s top diplomat also denied reports that Russia had asked long-time ally Assad to step down and offered him political asylum. “This is not true,” Lavrov said of media reports that Russia’s late military intelligence chief Igor Sergun had travelled to Syria to ask Assad to resign. “No one asked for political asylum and no one offered anything of the kind.” Turkey on Tuesday said it strongly opposed the Syrian Kurdish group Democratic Union Party (PYD) taking part in UN-backed talks planned for later this week seeking a political solution to the Syrian crisis. “We are categorically against the YPG and PYD, who oppress the Kurds, sitting at the table,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told ruling party lawmakers in parliament. Turkey considers the PYD and its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to be offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which wages an armed insurgency against Ankara. Davutoglu said he was not against Syrian Kurdish representatives joining the talks, deeming their presence at the table as a “necessity”. But he did not specify which other Syrian Kurdish groups he would like to see involved at Friday’s meeting.

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