BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):
Syria's Foreign Ministry says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supports terrorism and bears "prime responsibility for the bloodshed in Syria."
The ministry fired back after Erdogan on Wednesday called Syrian President Bashar Assad a "terrorist" who should have no part in Syria's post-conflict future.
Erdogan's comments were his sharpest against the Syrian president in months, and came as Turkey, Russia and Iran are trying to advance peace efforts.
Turkey is a supporter of the Syrian opposition, which says Assad should have no role in any future political transition. The government, which has gained the upper hand in the civil war thanks to heavy Russian and Iranian support, has adamantly rejected that demand.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said Erdogan has offered "limitless support" to all kinds of "terrorist groups." The Syrian government refers to all those who have taken up arms against it, including mainstream opposition groups, as terrorists.
Turkey's president says Syrian President Bashar Assad is a "terrorist who engaged in state terrorism" and should not be part of Syria's post-conflict future.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "It is not possible to walk (on this path) with Assad. Why? How can we embrace a future with a Syrian leader who has killed close to a million of his citizens?"
Erdogan made the comments on Wednesday in Tunis during a joint news conference with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Turkey, Russia and Iran have taken the lead in Syria peace efforts over the past year. Those efforts remain at an impasse, however, with the opposition insisting that Assad have no role during a political transition and the government refusing to even consider such a demand.
Turkey backs the opposition, while Russia and Iran are close allies of Assad whose support has tipped the nearly seven-year war in his favor.
The Turkish leader said "there is no calm in Syria, and with Assad there can never be peace there."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the next goal for the Syrian government is to defeat an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria.
The Levant Liberation Committee dominates in Syria's Idlib, the only province where forces of President Bashar Assad have almost no presence.
Russia earlier this month announced a partial withdrawal from Syria, two years after it launched an air campaign to support Assad, turning the tide of the civil war in his favor.
Lavrov, who held talks with a Syrian opposition leader in Moscow said on Wednesday, said efforts of Assad and his allies should now focus on defeating the Nusra Front, the previous name of the al-Qaida linked group.
"The Syrian army and its allies, with our support, are pushing on the Nusra fighters," Lavrov said.
Thanks to Russia's military intervention, Syrian government forces have retaken large swaths of land held by rebel and the Islamic State group, including main cities such as Homs, Aleppo and most recently, Deir el-Zour. This month, they entered the rebel-held province of Idlib in northern Syria for the first time in years.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says evacuations continue of critically ill Syrians from a besieged rebel-held area where conditions have reached alarming levels.
The Army of Islam, a prominent rebel group in eastern Ghouta, said Wednesday the evacuation of 29 critically ill persons was conditional on it releasing an equivalent number of captives it held.
Activists said at least five critically ill were evacuated late Tuesday.
The evacuation was coordinated between the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Mona Kurdi, spokeswoman for SARC, said the evacuees were taken to hospitals in government-controlled Damascus but had comments on their conditions.
The government recently tightened its siege on eastern Ghouta, home to nearly 400,000 people, refusing to allow hundreds of critically ill to reach hospitals minutes away, the United Nations said.
Russia's foreign minister says a Moscow-proposed peace congress scheduled for next month is crucial for reaching a settlement in Syria and is not hampering United Nations-led talks.
Sergey Lavrov's statement on Wednesday comes a day after several dozen Syrian opposition groups issued a series of statements saying the talks in Russia's Sochi next month are an attempt to "circumvent" the U.N.-led peace process.
Lavrov, who was meeting with Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba on Wednesday, told Russian news agencies that the Sochi congress would lay the groundwork for U.N.-led talks. The Russian minister quoted "broad support" for the Sochi talks among Syrians and said Russia's goal is to gather together the largest number of opposition groups possible to help launch constitutional reform in the war-torn country.