Gov't offensive on Aleppo threatens Syria peace talks

GENEVA -- An aid convoy is en route to a besieged rebel-held town near Damascus, but Syria's opposition said Wednesday that such deliveries are meaningless while government troops launch an offensive on Aleppo, further undermining prospects for peace talks underway in Geneva.

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The convoy heading to Moadamiyeh is the second humanitarian aid delivery to rebel-held areas near the capital in as many days, a spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross said. Pawel Krzysiek told The Associated Press that 12 trucks carrying food, medicine and medical equipment were expected to arrive later in the day.

The humanitarian situation in the town worsened toward the end of last year after the government choked off the last access point. Opposition activists and residents say there are dozens of cases of severe malnutrition in Moadamiyeh.

The aid delivery appears to be a confidence building gesture on the part of the government after UN-mediated indirect peace talks got off to a rocky start in Geneva this week.

The Syrian opposition had demanded that aid be allowed into 18 besieged areas throughout the country and that Syrian and Russian forces halt the bombardment of rebel-held areas ahead of the talks, which officially began Monday.

The latest aid delivery is a "positive development," said Basma Kodmani, a member of the opposition's negotiating team in Geneva, but "it is way below what we are hoping to see happen."

On Wednesday, pro-government fighters continued their offensive north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, in an attempt to besiege rebel-held neighbourhoods. If the government succeeds, it will be one of the biggest blows to insurgents since they captured large parts of the city in the summer of 2012.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops and pro-government forces were fighting "fierce battles" north of Aleppo.

The Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people have fled areas north of the city because of intense airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army is advancing against "dens of terrorists" in Aleppo, and that troops had retaken the nearby village of Oweinat.

Kodmani described the offensive as a "horrible development," saying the message the government is trying to send to negotiators is "there is nothing to negotiate. Just go home."

"We're not going home," she said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Yet Syrian opposition figure George Sabra told AP that Riad Hijab -- a former Syrian prime minister who now heads the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, the largest opposition bloc -- will arrive in Geneva later Wednesday, after which the opposition will hold meetings on whether to continue or leave the indirect peace talks.

"We should take a decision in the coming two days," Sabra said.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has shuttled between the government and opposition delegations in Geneva. On Monday, he formally declared the start of what he calls "proximity talks" between the two sides, which would have the two delegations seated in separate rooms.

The talks are aimed at ending a war that has killed 250,000 people, displaced millions and left much of the country in ruins. The last round of talks broke down in 2014.


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