UN reopens Syria peace talks, wants new pledge to uphold truce

The UN Syria envoy says despite several and serious incidents, the cessation of hostilities is still holding.

FILE: Smoke billows following reported air strikes by Syrian government forces in a rebel-held area of Daraa in southern Syria, on 17 February 2016. Picture: AFP.

GENEVA - UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura opened a new round of peace talks on Wednesday seeking renewed pledges to uphold a truce he said had been shaken by serious incidents but "not a bushfire".

"In spite of the several and serious incidents, the cessation of hostilities is still holding, particularly when we compare to what used to be," de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

But he said repeated "incidents" would damage confidence in the partial ceasefire, which began on February 27 and does not include Islamic State or al-Qaeda linked groups.

"And that is why perhaps it would be good timing for a reaffirmation by those who have been supporting and promoting the cessation of hostilities in their faith and determination in protecting it. At the beginning of the second round of talks that would be a significant help."

Since the last round of talks ended on 24 March, de Mistura has travelled to Moscow, Damascus, Tehran and Amman. Officials in all four capitals had indicated support and interest in a discussion aiming at a political transition in Syria, he said.

"None of them actually expressed any doubt that that is the priority and the agenda," he said.

De Mistura was speaking after meeting negotiators from the opposition High Negotiations Committee for the first session of the new round of talks.

The head of the opposition negotiating team, Asaad al-Zoubi, said establishing a transitional governing body was the top priority this time around.

The government's negotiators are expected in Geneva on Friday after vote-counting from elections held in government-controlled areas on Wednesday in a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Zoubi described Assad as a "disease" that Syria needed to be rid of.

He said the Syrian government had committed more than 2,000 breaches of the truce and dropped 420 barrel bombs in March.

"This is a clear sign that the regime is a terrorist regime and is not serious about seeking a political solution," he said.

The government has denied dropping barrel bombs. It has said its opponents are responsible for violations of the truce, which a senior official close to the Syrian government said on Tuesday had effectively collapsed.

Since February, 133,819 people have been uprooted by fighting, mainly in Aleppo and Hasaka governorates in northern Syria and in Deraa in the south, the UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Wednesday.

However, "significant returnee movements have been reported elsewhere in southern Syria, due to the relative calm and the sharp decrease in aerial bombardment," it said in a report.