Syria rebels suspend talks over alleged truce violations

AP News
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Posted: Jan 03, 2017 2:01 PM
Syria rebels suspend talks over alleged truce violations

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces pressed their offensive in a water-rich valley northwest of Damascus on Tuesday as 10 rebel groups announced they are suspending talks about planned peace negotiations because of what they described as government violations of a cease-fire deal.

The truce, brokered by Russia and Turkey, is meant to be followed by talks later this month in the Kazakh capital of Astana between mainstream rebel factions and government representatives.

The U.N. Security Council on Saturday unanimously adopted a resolution supporting efforts by Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in Syria's civil war, to end the nearly six-year conflict and jump-start peace negotiations.

But the nationwide four-day-old cease-fire is looking increasingly shaky, with opposition factions angered in particular about the ongoing military offensive in the strategically-important Barada Valley.

The government and the opposition disagree about whether the region is part of the cease-fire agreement, which excludes extremist factions such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's affiliate, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front. The text of the document was never released to the public.

The Syrian government says the mountainous region is not part of the cease-fire because of the presence of the Fatah al-Sham Front. Local activists deny any militant presence in the area.

Opposition activists, including the Barada Valley Media Center, on Tuesday reported heavy bombardment of villages there. The opposition's Civil Defense first responders reported at least nine government airstrikes since Sunday, as well as acute shortages of medical supplies. Six people have been killed and 73 have been wounded, it said.

In a statement posted late Monday, 10 rebel factions said they were "freezing all discussions regarding the Astana negotiations or any other consultations regarding the cease-fire agreement until it is fully implemented." They include the powerful Army of Islam group, which operates mainly outside the Syrian capital.

It said the violations in the Barada Valley are continuing and "threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." The statement also said that the opposition will consider any military changes made on the ground to be a serious violation of the cease-fire agreement "that renders it null."

The Barada Valley, which is controlled by rebels and is surrounded by pro-government forces, including the Lebanese Iran-backed Hezbollah group, is the primary source of water for Damascus and surrounding areas. The fighting has cut off the capital's main sources of water, resulting in severe shortages since Dec. 22.

Images from the valley's Media Center indicate its Ain al-Fijeh spring and water processing facility have been destroyed, apparently by airstrikes. The government says rebels spoiled the water source with diesel fuel, forcing it to cut supplies to the capital.

The cease-fire agreement, which went into effect early Friday, is supposed to pave the way for the government and the opposition to meet for talks for the first time in nearly a year in the second half of January. Those talks will be mediated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, though Russian officials have said other key players, including the United States, are welcome to participate.

In the northern province of Idlib, al-Qaida's affiliate, the Fatah al-Sham Front, said more than 20 people were killed as a result of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes that targeted one of its command centers.

The statement released on the group's Telegram channel did not give further details, but opposition activists said dozens of people were killed and wounded in the airstrikes that struck the group's position near the village of Sarmada in the Idlib countryside.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said he was unaware of the incident.

The attack follows an air raid late Sunday that struck several cars traveling on a road leading from Sarmada to the Bab al-Hawa area near the border with Turkey, killing at least eight people, including al-Qaida-linked fighters and a senior commander with Chinese Islamic militant faction, according to opposition groups and a local jihadi commander.

The U.S. has killed some of al-Qaida's most senior commanders in Syria over the past two years in airstrikes. Those targeted include members of the so-called Khorasan group, which Washington describes as an internal branch of al-Qaida that plans attacks against Western interests.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the Sunday and Tuesday attacks.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.