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Syria wants 2 militant groups barred from peace talks

GENEVA: President Bashar Assad’s government will “never accept” the removal of two militant groups from a list of terrorist organizations barred from peace talks, a Syrian official said, while an opposition figure called on the international community on Sunday to stop Russia’s “crimes in Syria.”
Ahrar Al-Sham and the Army of Islam, two Islamic groups fighting to overthrow Assad, agreed to take part in UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva. The ultraconservative Ahrar Al-Sham is not part of the team sent to Geneva, but the delegation has named Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator.
A UN Security Council resolution adopted last month tasked Jordan with compiling an agreed list of terrorist organizations that would be excluded from the talks. Work on the list is still underway.
Assad’s government has long referred to all those fighting to overthrow him as terrorists, but has agreed to negotiations with some armed groups in the latest talks. Virtually all parties agree that the Daesh group and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front be excluded.
The two sides are divided over Ahrar Al-Sham and the Army of Islam, which the Syrian government and its close ally Russia view as extremists. The mainstream opposition views both groups as fellow rebels, despite their ideological differences.
Syrian Information Minister Omar Al-Zoubi said on state TV late Saturday that the government would “never accept” the two groups being removed from the list.
“We will neither sit down directly with terrorists, nor have dialogue with them,” he said.
The meetings in Geneva, billed as multiparty talks, are part of a process outlined in last month’s UN resolution that envisions an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria, including the drafting of a new constitution and elections.
In Geneva, a delegation of the main opposition group was scheduled to meet with UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, who began the peace talks on Friday with a meeting with the Syrian government’s delegation, opposition spokesman Salem Al-Mislet told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The opposition’s delegation says it will not take part in the indirect talks until its demands are met, including lifting the siege imposed on rebel-held areas and an end to Russian and Syrian bombardment of regions controlled by opposition fighters.
“It’s the duty of the responsibility of members of the Security Council to put the pressure on Russia to stop these crimes in Syria,” Al-Mislet said in English.
“It’s enough killing our children, killing civilians. They pretend to fight terrorism. In fact they don’t fight terrorism because they bring terrorism there and ISIS is spreading in many areas in Syria more than before because of these Russian strikes,” Al-Mislet said, using a term to refer to the Daesh group.
Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, saying its strikes are meant to weaken IS and other “terrorists” in Syria, but Western officials and Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where IS does not have a strong presence.
Russia has been one of the strongest supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the start of the uprising in 2011.
Also Sunday, two explosions went off in the predominantly Shiite Damascus suburb of Sayyida Zeinab, killing at least 10 people, state TV said. The report said one blast was triggered by a car bomb and the second by a suicide bomber.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors both sides of the conflict through a network of activists inside Syria, said the blast killed 12 people and wounded about two dozen.

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