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UN alarmed over escalation in fighting in Damascus ahead of Geneva peace talks

The UN has expressed concern over the escalation in fighting around Damascus. Syria peace talks are due to resume with the UN's envoy Staffan de Mistura expressing 'chronic optimism.'

There have been reports of civilian deaths and injuries from shelling in Qabun, Barzeh, Tishreen and western Harasta districts of the city of Damascus, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday.

"The UN is alarmed by the intensification of fighting in the Damascus area in recent days," said Haq, adding that over 100,000 civilians were living in need in neighborhoods that have seen an upsurge in fighting since Saturday.

So-called Islamic State (IS)-linked groups on Monday reportedly launched a surprise attack on moderate rebels in southwestern Syria near the Golan Heights, seizing several villages and a large town.

Peace talks

Representatives from the opposition and President Bashar al-Assad's regime head to Geneva on Thursday for talks to end their country's six-year war. They are the fourth round of negotiations between Syria's warring parties moderated by the 70-year-old de Mistura (photo).

De Mistura said the agenda at the talks would mirror the objectives outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 from December 2015. The Security Council expressed its support for establishing inclusive and non-sectarian governance, the drafting of a new constitution and free and fair elections.

Haq said there were still questions over the delegations. "We do expect clarifications on who precisely will be coming over," he said.

The last round of talks broke up in April last year with violence ongoing on the ground.

A man inspects the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in a rebel-held area of Damascus

A man inspects the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in a rebel-held area of Damascus on February 19

The UN-backed humanitarian taskforce created under de Mistura's watch has partially succeeded in increasing aid flows. In 2015 fewer than 500,000 Syrians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas received life-saving supplies. That number jumped to 1.3 million last year, according to the UN.

Human rights groups attack Russia

Participants in the talks should prioritize five key human rights issues during negotiations, 40 human rights and other organizations said in a statement released early on Tuesday.

"The priorities are to end unlawful attacks, ensure aid access and safe passage for fleeing civilians, detainee rights, justice, and security sector reform," the statement read.

"One of the main goals of the Geneva talks should be putting an end to the violations against Syrians who have faced bombing, chemical attacks, starvation, illegal detention, and more horrors," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"The US-led coalition should take fully into account that the Russia-Syria coalition has repeatedly committed war crimes under the guise of fighting terrorism, and that any cooperation with Russia in the fight against the IS in Syria should ensure that it is not complicit in such crimes," the human rights statement reads.

Watch video 00:19

Staffan de Mistura addresses ISIS and Syria

jbh/jm (Reuters, AFP)

 

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