Beirut: On Saturday, an air strike allegedly killed dozens of people in a rebel-held town in Syria as a UN envoy visited Damascus to advance preparations for peace talks planned this month despite opposition misgivings. Agreement was also reached for aid to be delivered on Monday to an opposition-held town besieged by pro-government forces where United Nations says there have been credible reports of people dying of starvation, sources said. Aid will be sent simultaneously to two villages blockaded by rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 39 people were killed in the air strike, which hit a court house and adjoining prison in the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province. It did not say whether the air strike was carried out by Syrian or Russian jets, which have both bombed the area. Russia has been staging air strikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad since September. The building was struck with four missiles and the number of dead could increase due to the large number of wounded, the Observatory said. Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The war has raged on since last month when the Security Council endorsed a plan for peace talks, a rare case of US-Russian agreement over a conflict that has killed 250,000 people. The talks are due to begin on January 25 in Geneva. The Syrian government told UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Saturday it was ready to participate but wants to know who would take part from the opposition, Syrian state media reported.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also said it was important to see a list of groups that would be classified as terrorists as part of the new diplomatic process, flagging another potential complication. Damascus views all the groups fighting to topple Assad as terrorists, including rebels who support a political solution and are represented in a recently formed opposition council tasked with overseeing the negotiations.
A statement from de Mistura’s office described Saturday’s meeting as useful and said the envoy had outlined preparations. “The Special Envoy is looking forward to the active participation of relevant parties in the Geneva talks. He will be continuing his consultations in the region,” it added. Syrian rebels and opposition politicians have expressed doubts over whether the peace talks will begin as planned. Their concerns over the diplomatic bid include the absence of any mention of Assad’s fate. Earlier this week, they told de Mistura that before negotiations the Syrian government must stop bombing civilian areas, release detainees and lift blockades imposed on opposition-held areas.