The Latest: Syria ‘fully backing’ Russia safe zones proposal


BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):

10:40 p.m.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry says Damascus is “fully backing” a Russian initiative to establish four areas of cease-fire in the war-torn country.

The statement was carried by the state-run SANA news agency late on Wednesday.

A Syrian rebel delegation at the talks underway in Kazakhstan said its members were given a copy of the proposal by Russian representatives.

The proposal would freeze front lines in four zones in Syria contested by opposition fighters and the government.

Rebels said they have requested written clarification from Russia and pushed for nation-wide cease-fire instead.

Earlier in the day at a summit in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they hoped the Syrian government and rebels would accept these “de-escalation” zones.

Putin said Russian and Syrian government jets would halt flights over the specified zones if all sides respect the cease-fire.

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6:40 p.m.

The United Nations’ envoy for Syria is calling on the armed opposition’s delegation to return to the talks underway in Kazakhstan where a proposal to establish safe zones in the country is a top issue.

The opposition on Wednesday left the talks in Astana, the Kazakh capital, demanding the Syrian government follow through with an agreement to halt attacks and release detainees.

Envoy Staffan de Mistura says he hopes the delegation will rejoin the talks on Thursday.

De Mistura was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that he hopes “they will return because it is important to look at the possibility of de-escalation.”

He appealed to Syrian opposition delegates not to “destroy the possibility of good news related to this issue.”

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5 p.m.

The presidents of Russia and Turkey say they support the formation of so-called safe zones in Syria and hope an agreement about them will be reached at the multilateral Syria talks underway in Kazakhstan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Wednesday at the Russian presidential complex in the resort city of Sochi.

They spoke to reporters at a joint press conference after their meeting.

Erdogan says he and Putin discussed Russia’s plan for safe, or de-escalation, zones in Syria.

The Turkish leader says he hopes “this zone of de-escalation will be accepted” at talks in the Kazakh capital, which also include representatives of Iran and the United States.

Relations between Moscow and Ankara deteriorated after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane at the Syrian border in November 2015 and Russia responded with trade and tourism sanctions.

But Putin said on Wednesday that relations have been restored.

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1:30 p.m.

A Syrian opposition official says a Russian proposal for safe zones cannot be accepted in its current form and that armed rebel groups have questions about it.

Ahmed Ramadan tells The Associated Press the armed groups will request written answers on a number of issues, including why certain areas have been selected for cease-fires instead of a nationwide truce.

Russia has not commented publicly on the proposal, which was being circulated as cease-fire talks resumed Wednesday in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

The opposition delegation suspended their participation in the talks, demanding a commitment to a December cease-fire that has been repeatedly violated.

But Ramadan says the delegation will remain in Astana to discuss the cease-fire violations and present their questions about the safe zones proposal.

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2:30 p.m.

The presidents of Russia and Turkey are holding talks on the situation in Syria and the restoration of full economic ties between their two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the start of Wednesday’s talks their ability to discuss key issues, including Syria, shows that relations are being fully restored.

The meeting at Putin’s Black Sea residence coincides with Syria cease-fire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, co-sponsored by Russia and Turkey.

The cooperation on Syria marks a sharp turnaround for Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the war.

The conflicting interests led to the downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish jet at the Syrian border in November 2015. Moscow responded with tourism and trade restrictions that badly hurt the Turkish economy.

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2 p.m.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says a convoy of food and medical supplies organized with the United Nations has reached a rebel-held Syrian town near the capital for the first time in six months.

Ingy Sedky, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the ICRC, said Wednesday the overnight convoy of 51 trucks delivered food, clothes and medical supplies to Douma, where some 35,000 people are besieged by government forces.

Sieges have been part of the Syrian government’s military strategy against its domestic opponents throughout the six-year-old civil war. A number of surrender deals of rebel-held areas have been negotiated under siege.

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1:35 p.m.

The Syrian opposition says armed groups have suspended their participation in Russia-backed cease-fire talks, demanding the government follow through with an earlier agreement to halt attacks and release detainees.

The fourth round of the talks opened Wednesday in the Kazakh capital, Astana. Washington is sending a senior State Department official to the talks for the first time.

On Wednesday, the Syrian opposition circulated a document that calls for the creation of “de-escalation” and security zones, to be monitored by observer countries. It said the zones would allow for the voluntary return of refugees.

Russia, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is also reportedly circulating a proposal for safe zones.

Ahmed Ramadan, an opposition representative, says armed groups’ delegation suspended their participation in the talks after presenting a 10-point document that calls for adherence to an earlier cease-fire reached in December.

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12:15 p.m.

A Kazakh diplomat has confirmed that a Russian proposal to set up safe zones in Syria is under discussion at talks in Astana.

The Interfax news agency quoted Aidarbek Tumatov as saying the proposal involves the creation of at least four zones.

Russia has not officially released its proposal. Reports in Russian state media say the zones would be patrolled by forces from Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The latest round of talks in Kazakhstan’s capital began Wednesday, and was joined for the first time by a senior State Department official.

The Tass news agency reported that Stuart Jones, an assistant secretary of state, has already met separately with Russia’s representative.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, the U.S. and Russian presidents agreed to bolster diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

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Noon

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey and Russia attach great importance to “strengthening” a cease-fire in Syria and will continue to work together to try and end the conflict.

Erdogan spoke in Ankara on Wednesday before his departure for Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin on bilateral economic ties and the situation in Syria.

The Turkish leader said the two countries’ aim for Syria was “to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible, to protect the country’s territorial unity and (find) a political solution.”

Erdogan said: “We are engaged in a productive cooperation in Syria. We jointly took several steps that led to new hopes for a political solution.”

The Syrian government and the opposition are resuming cease-fire talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on Wednesday.

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10:15 a.m.

Syrian activists say a large explosion in a northern town along the border with Turkey has killed at least four people and wounded many others.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the death toll in the town of Azaz is likely to climb after Wednesday’s blast.

Both the Observatory and the activist-run Revolutionary Forces of Syria media office say the explosion is believed to have been caused by a car bomb. Images posted online by the activist-run Azaz Media Center showed a burnt out car and a fire in the area.