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US, Russia back UN plan to restart Syrian peace talks

Despite ceasefire violations that have killed over 130 people, international powers press for renewed peace talks. But Syrian rebels have said President Assad should not be allowed in because he has "blood on his hands."

The United Nations envoy to Syria is trying to parlay a week-old ceasefire into peace talks that would begin on Wednesday in a staggered start.

"I see us beginning on March 10 when we will launch the process," said envoy Staffan de Mistura. "Some [participants] will arrive on the ninth. Others, because of difficulties with hotel reservations, will arrive on the 11th. Others will arrive on the 14th."

Syrian opponents gathered at the Tarik al-Bab neighborhood to stage a protest against the Assad regime and Russia.

Opposition protests against Assad's regime in Aleppo

The negotiations would be held indirectly, meaning that the warring sides would not meet face-to-face.

"We will hold preparatory meetings and then go into detail with each group separately," he said.

Whether the talks get off the ground remains to be seen as the key opposition group is balking. While international observers say the ceasefire is largely holding, the main opposition group - the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) - said parts of the country remain under siege.

While some of that fighting is the result of continued combat with the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda backed al-Nusra Front, which have both been excluded from the ceasefire, HNC sites are also being hit by Russian and Syrian bombers, and one aid agency says 135 people have been killed in areas included in the ceasefire.

Assad has "blood on his hands"

HNC head Riad Hijab said thousands of Syrians are still being held captive in regime prisons, and that President Bashar al-Assad should have "no place" in a political transition because he has "blood on his hands." For those reasons, he said the opposition remains undecided about attending peace talks.

Assad's ouster was once a Western prerequisite for peace in Syria, but with his strong military backing from Moscow, the West appears to have all but given up on its demand that Assad not be allowed to stay in power.

Despite continued differences, both the United States and Russia are in agreement on the need to move the peace process forward.

Syrian protesters carry Free Syrian Army flags and chant slogans during an anti-government protest.

Opposition protests Assad's regime in Idlib province

"The two sides called to start the negotiations as soon as possible ... between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the opposition, during which the Syrians themselves should determine the future of their country," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued after a lengthy phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Still the Assad regime continues to face international criticism from the World Health Organization and the UN for obstructing aid deliveries to parts of the country. The UN's de Mistura said the Syrian government needs to process aid deliveries faster.

"Lorries are waiting for 36 hours," he said. "Medical aid must be allowed."

bik/sms (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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