UN envoy: Syria peace talks to resume April 9

AP News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2016 3:12 PM

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N.'s Syria envoy on Thursday set April 9 as a "target date" for indirect peace talks to resume in Geneva, saying he is encouraged by the fact that "no breakdowns, no walkouts" tripped up the latest and most substantial round of talks.

"I was quite impressed by the fact that both sides behaved very seriously," Staffan de Mistura said at a press conference in Geneva wrapping up the talks that started March 14. The talks were a resumption of the shuttle diplomacy — in which he met with government and opposition envoys separately — that he had suspended last month amid a blistering Russian-backed offensive by government forces near the northern city of Aleppo.

De Mistura said the government delegation had been extremely focused on principles that would precede the talks, and he now hopes to upshift into substantive talks toward political transition, something that has been sought by the international community and the opposition. In essence, he was gently ratcheting up the pressure on President Bashar Assad's government before the next phase.

De Mistura's office provided a document comprised of 12 points — which he hopes could be common ground between the two sides to build on — such as affirming Syria's territorial integrity, reforming state institutions, rejecting terrorism, rebuilding the army and paving the way for the return of refugees.

His aim is to help end the five-year war that has killed at least 250,000 people, driven half of Syria's population from their homes and provided an opening to radical groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.

De Mistura said he hopes the next round of talks will begin around April 9. He said he is encouraged by the fact that "we have been able to overcome these two weeks without any walkouts or drama, and potentially a paper that has not been refused by either side." He also praised a recent renewal of humanitarian aid convoys into besieged cities and towns, and a significant reduction in violence thanks to a fragile truce now nearing the end of its first month— despite "quite a lot of incidents."

"We have calculated perhaps 3,000 people ... are alive today since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities," he said, referring to the drop in bloodshed. "They would not be, based on the statistics we used to be, sadly, facing every day."

The Syrian government plans to hold scheduled parliamentary elections in government-held parts of Syria on April 13 and has said it wanted the talks to resume after that date. The opposition, which believes the elections are a farce, has rejected that.

De Mistura appeared to be making a compromise by saying the talks will start "at least" on April 9 "but if people want to come on the 13th or 14th they are warmly welcome."

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Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.