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UN Syria Envoy Says Peace Deal Remains Elusive


UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura

The United Nations envoy for Syria says the fifth round of peace talks between opposition leaders and the government made "incremental" progress, but he warned that a peace deal remains a long way off.

Staffan de Mistura on March 31 said after wrapping up nine days of talks in Geneva that the sides appeared "keen" on holding a new round of talks, but he said no date had been set.

Opposition and government negotiators met separately with de Mistura, who said he was at least pleased that no one had walked out.

The talks were still in the preparation stage, he acknowledged, and centered on four "baskets" of issues -- governance, drafting a new constitution, elections, and combating terrorism.

"In every negotiation, there are certain issues that need to be prepared...before the real, real peace negotiations start... and it is clear, we are not quite there," he said.

He expressed concerns about the status of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

De Mistura urged the three nations, which have been sponsoring talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, to "revitalize the cease-fire."

"We really mean it. Successful work in Astana on the cease-fire reinforces Geneva and vice versa," he said.

Fighting in Syria has intensified during the past two weeks.

Rebel groups launched drives against districts in the capital, Damascus, and captured several villages near the provincial capital of Hama.

A counteroffensive by Syrian government forces recaptured most of the areas.

The war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011, has killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced millions more.

Russia and Iran back President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and the United States support various rebel groups fighting the government.

But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump declared this week that it isn’t pursuing a strategy to push Assad out of power, saying its focus is on defeating the extremist group Islamic State, which is still controlling large swaths of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

"There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on March 31.

On March 30, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad's "longer-term status" would be decided by the Syrian people, while the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said of Assad, "Do we think he's a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No."

With reporting by AFP, AP, and Reuters
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