More shelling in Syria's Aleppo mars peace talks in Geneva

AP , Thursday 14 Apr 2016

Syrian troops exchanged fire with rebels in the contested northern city of Aleppo and on Thursday in a renewed bout of fighting that could further mar peace talks underway in Geneva.

Government warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery were bombarding rebel-held parts of the city and its suburbs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby.

The pro-government Addounia TV said one person was killed and five people were wounded by mortar rounds fired by insurgents into the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district of the city.

The fighting came a day after Syrians in government-held parts of the country voted for a new parliament — balloting that the opposition has dismissed as a sham and that could further undermine the peace talks. Those negotiations resumed Wednesday in Geneva, with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting Syrian opposition representatives. The government is expected to join the talks on Friday, a delay that was explained by the elections.

Aleppo has seen sporadic clashes despite a U.S.-Russia-engineered truce that went into effect in late February. Government forces and their allies have rebel-held parts of Aleppo almost surrounded from all sides, except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city.

"Areas close to the front lines are tense," said al-Halaby, the activist, speaking via Skype as explosions were heard in the background. He said several shells are falling every minute on the city and its suburbs.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another opposition monitoring group, reported violence in other parts of the country, including the central province of Homs and the northwestern region of Idlib.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition struck areas controlled by the Islamic State group (IS) near Syria's border with Turkey, according to a Turkish news agency. The militant IS group and al-Qaida's Syria branch known as Nusra Front are not part of the cease-fire in Syria.

Coalition jets struck IS militants in the villages of Souran, Hawar Kilis and Kafra, reported the private Dogan news agency. The report said smoke rose from the strikes and that sounds of explosion and gunfire were heard from across the border.

The Observatory also reported the airstrikes, saying they came amid clashes between IS group militants and rival groups in the area. It said IS fighters captured on Thursday the village of Hawar Kilis and the area around it.

The villages in northern Syria lie across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis, which has been the scene of near-daily rockets and shelling from IS group-controlled territory in Syria. One person was killed and several people were wounded from such rocket fire on Wednesday.

Also Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin — one pf President Bashar Assad's staunchest allies — said Moscow has shored up the Syrian army to the point where it can conduct offensive operations largely on its own following a Russian military drawdown.

As an illustration of the Syrian army's success, Putin, who spoke in a marathon call-in TV show, said that after Russia withdrew some warplanes from Syria, the Syrian army was able to recapture the ancient town of Palmyra from the IS group.

Putin also expressed hope the truce will help Syrian peace talks in Geneva and pave the way for a new constitution and an early election.

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