BEIRUT, April 14, (Agencies): Islamic State group jihadists have seized a string of opposition-held villages in Syria’s Aleppo province near the Turkish border, a monitoring group said Thursday. Areas around Aleppo have seen a spike in violence on several fronts in recent days, sparking concern over a fragile sixweek truce as a new round of peace talks gets under way in Geneva. “Fierce clashes are raging between rebels and IS after the jihadists secured an advance and seized control of six villages near the Turkish border,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The most important village to come under IS control was Hiwar Kallis, about one kilometre (less than one mile) south of the Turkish border, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said. Warplanes meanwhile raided IS positions in the area, he said, adding that they were likely from the US-led coalition. In recent weeks, battles have been intensifying between IS and rebels over the border strip, which both sides use to transport fighters and weapons.
Rebels had secured significant gains against IS before the jihadists pushed them back, like in the strategic town of Al-Rai, which is on an IS supply route to Turkey. Meanwhile, Syrian troops exchanged fire with rebels in the contested northern city of Aleppo on Thursday in a renewed bout of fighting that could further mar peace talks underway in Geneva. Government warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery were bombarding rebel-held parts of the city and its suburbs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby. The pro-government Addounia TV said one person was killed and five people were wounded by mortar rounds fired by insurgents into the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district of the city.
The fighting came a day after Syrians in government-held parts of the country voted for a new parliament — balloting that the opposition has dismissed as a sham and that could further undermine the peace talks. Those negotiations resumed Wednesday in Geneva, with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting Syrian opposition representatives. The government is expected to join the talks on Friday, a delay that was explained by the elections. Aleppo has seen sporadic clashes despite a US-Russia-engineered truce that went into effect in late February. Government forces and their allies have rebelheld parts of Aleppo almost surrounded from all sides, except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city. “Areas close to the front lines are tense,” said al-Halaby, the activist, speaking via Skype as explosions were heard in the background.
He said several shells are falling every minute on the city and its suburbs. The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another opposition monitoring group, reported violence in other parts of the country, including the central province of Homs and the northwestern region of Idlib. Syria’s main opposition group is willing to share membership of a transitional governing body with current members of the government of President Bashar al- Assad, but not with Assad himself, the group’s spokesman said in Geneva. “There are many people on the other side who we can really deal with,” Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the High Negotiations Committee, said on the second day of a round of UN-mediated peace talks. “We will have no veto, as long as they don’t send us criminals, as long as they don’t send us people involved in the killing of Syrians,” he said.
UN mediator Staffan de Mistura has said a political transition would be the main focus of the current round of the peace talks, which aim to end Syria’s five-year-old war. More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict. The HNC has always insisted that there can be no place for Assad in a transitional governing body but Muslat said there was room for negotiation on how to handle Assad’s departure. China on Thursday urged UN Security Council members to back a draft resolution demanding states report when militants are developing chemical weapons in Syria.
Some diplomats have dismissed the proposed resolution as a bid to distract from accusations the Syrian government uses such weapons. Russia and China circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member body on Wednesday, which Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said could serve as a deterrent to “terrorist” groups such as Islamic State from using chemical weapons. Islamic State militants are believed to be responsible for sulfur mustard gas attacks in Syria and Iraq last year, the United States has said. Russia has also said it sees a high probability that Islamic State is using chemical weapons.