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UN envoy to Syria sees start of process leading to elections in 18 months

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, has said he sees a presidential election being held in 18 months. Next week's round of peace talks should be the start of the process towards the vote.

In an interview with the Russian state news agency on Friday, United Nations envoy de Mistura said the process towards elections would start at the next round of talks between the Syrian government and the main Syrian opposition council, which begin in Geneva on March 14.

"New elections... should be held 18 months from the start of talks, that is from March 14," de Mistura told Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency on Friday, in comments translated into Russian. That would mean a poll for a new president around mid-September 2017.

De Mistura said that the agenda for the meeting starting in Switzerland on Monday was key: "The most important point is the three-point agenda, which has been defined by the Security Council and which the Russian Federation adopted, too, which is resolution 2254. The first one is an all-inclusive new government," de Mistura said.

"The second one is a new constitution and the third one is new elections in 18 months from the beginning of the talks, so from the 14th of this month, to provide both parliamentarian and presidential elections and the UN supervision in 18 months," he added. "So my hope is that we may progress - on paper or not on paper - but to progress on, at least, the first item during the first phase of these talks."

Syria's main opposition group, in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said it would attend the peace talks on Monday as part of its "commitment to international efforts to stop the spilling of Syrian blood and find a political solution."

But it also accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of preparing to escalate the war. "We know that they (the government) are committing crimes, and that they are preparing an air and ground escalation in the coming period," the HNC coordinator, Riad Hijab, said without giving details.

Peace talks

The opposition HNC said it wanted the talks to concentrate on the establishment of an interim governing body with full executive powers.

Syrien Aleppo Flagge

A view of the city of Aleppo

Riad Hijab said the HNC was "concerned with representing the just cause of the Syrian people ... and investing in all available chances to alleviate the Syrian people's suffering."

Syrian dissident, Haytham Manna, said he would stay away from the talks, which he regarded as a "failing project." Manna, whose Syrian Democratic Council includes Kurdish members, boycotted the last round of talks because the Kurds were not invited.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that this time de Mistura should include representatives of Kurdish groups, although the UN envoy said he had not expanded the list of groups being invited. Such an invitation would inevitably draw opposition from Turkey which regards the Kurdish groups fighting in Syria as terrorists.

The "cessation of hostilities" agreement which came into force on February 27 does not include either the self-declared "Islamic State" (IS) or the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front.

Truce, demonstrations and fighting

Despite the attacks and missiles, on the second Friday of the truce many places have been reported to be quiet. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets across Syria after Friday prayers for the second week in a row.

Syrien Protest gegen Assad-Regime in Aleppo

An opposition rally was held in Aleppo last Friday, at the start of the ceasefire. More were held this week.

Government raids were reported to have killed five civilians in Syria's second city, Aleppo. An AFP correspondent in Aleppo said the raids struck a mosque.

Syrian government forces were reported to be fighting IS groups near the ancient site of Palmyra on Friday. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, Russian air forces have attacking Palmyra with dozens of strikes since Wednesday.

IS has blown up ancient temples and tombs since capturing Palmyra in what the UNESCO cultural agency has called a war crime. Should the Syrian forces be able to recapture Palmyra and make further eastward advances into Deir al-Zor where IS is also established, it would mark the most significant government gain against IS since the start of the Russian intervention last September.

Watch video 02:22

Syria: A lost generation?

The war, which will enter its sixth year next week, has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions.

jm/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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