Blast near Turkish border as Syria cease-fire talks resume

 03 May 2017 - 14:34

Blast near Turkish border as Syria cease-fire talks resume
A still image taken from a video posted to a social media website said to be shot on May 3, 2017, shows what is said to be the site of a car bomb in what is said to be Azaz, Syria.

By SARAH EL DEEB | AP

BEIRUT: A large explosion shook a rebel-held Syrian town along the border with Turkey on Wednesday, killing at least five people and wounding others, as Russia-led talks between the Syrian government and rebels focused on a cease-fire resumed in Kazakhstan.

Shortly after the talks in Astana kicked off, opposition officials said they were suspending their participation, demanding commitment to an earlier agreement to end violence and release detainees.

The fourth round of talks in Astana is meant to try and reinstate a cease-fire that has been repeatedly violated since coming into effect in December.

The opposition has circulated a proposal calling for the creation of "de-escalation" zones, to be monitored by observer countries. The zones, according to the document, would allow for the voluntary return of refugees.

Ahmed Ramadan, an opposition representative, said the armed groups suspended their participation in the talks after presenting their own demands, calling for adherence to an earlier cease-fire reached in December that also included provisions for the release of detainees.

The United States has sent a senior State Department official to the talks for the first time, and President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signaled greater cooperation on Syria in a phone call on Tuesday. The White House said the two discussed setting up safe zones in the country, where a civil war has been raging for more than six years. The Kremlin made no mention of safe zones.

The Interfax news agency quoted a Kazakh diplomat, Aidarbek Tumatov as saying that a Russian proposal involves the creation of at least four zones in Syria. Russia has not officially released its proposal, but reports in Russian state media said the zones would be patrolled by forces from Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The Tass news agency reported that Stuart Jones, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, has already met separately with Russia's representative. Syrian TV said the Astana talks began with a meeting between delegations from Russia and Iran, another close ally of Assad.

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a car bomb went off in the town of Azaz close to the offices of the Syrian interim government, which represents the opposition in rebel-held areas. The Observatory and the activist-run Azaz Media Center confirmed the toll, which was likely to rise.

Azaz is on a key opposition supply route, and is a hub for fighters and opposition activists. It also hosts people displaced from fighting elsewhere in the country. The town has been the scene of several attacks, some claimed by the Islamic State group. A huge explosion in January killed at least 50 people in Azaz.

A video of the aftermath of Wednesday's explosion posted online by the Azaz Media Center showed burnt-out cars and firefighters struggling to put out a blaze. Gunfire rang out as people gathered at the scene and ambulances arrived.

The Turkish Dogan news agency said some of the wounded were taken to the state hospital in the Turkish border town of Kilis for treatment.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meanwhile said Turkey and Russia attach great importance to "strengthening" the cease-fire in Syria and will continue to work together to try and end the conflict.

Erdogan spoke in Ankara on Wednesday before his departure for Russia for talks with Putin on bilateral economic ties and the situation in Syria.

The Turkish leader said the two countries' aim for Syria was "to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible, to protect the country's territorial unity and (find) a political solution."

Erdogan said: "We are engaged in a productive cooperation in Syria. We jointly took several steps that led to new hopes for a political solution."

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