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The Latest: Geneva talks to focus on Syria transition Friday

The Latest: Geneva talks to focus on Syria transition Friday

By The Associated Press | Posted - Mar. 2, 2017 at 12:56 p.m.

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest developments on the ground in Syria and at the Geneva peace talks. (all times local):

9:50 p.m.

A Syrian official in the main opposition delegation taking part in the U.N.-mediated talks in Geneva says discussions will continue on Friday with a focus on the issue of political transition in Syria.

Nasr al-Hariri spoke to journalist late on Thursday. He says his delegation held "very positive" and detailed discussions with U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on the issue of political transition in his war-torn country.

Al-Hariri says that the "political process is not an easy process, it cannot be concluded in one or two weeks, more effort is needed, more time is needed" and stressed that his delegation was willing to keep negotiating.

De Mistura has had a week of bilateral talks with both the Syrian government and opposition groups, which have yet to formally sign off on the agenda he proposed.

The U.N. envoy sought to put the issues of governance, elections and constitution on the table.

The Damascus side wants terrorism on the agenda as well, while the opposition seeks to focus on political transition. The opposing parties have traded accusations of trying to derail the talks — but, in a small win for de Mistura, they have stuck to the talks.


8:45 p.m.

The head of the Syrian government delegation at the Geneva peace talks has criticized Turkey's "aggression" and says his nation has the right to defend itself from foreign forces on its soil.

Bashar Ja'afari, who is also his country's ambassador at the United Nations, says Damascus considers the presence of Turkish troops on Syrian soil "a military aggression."

He said on Thursday that the Syrian forces "reserve our right to use our all the means available ... to expel the Turkish forces from our territory."

Earlier, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces said they will withdraw from a front line with rival, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces near the Euphrates River, to allow government forces to create a buffer between the mutually-hostile sides.


8:15 p.m.

Syria's U.N. ambassador has lambasted an opposition delegation at the Geneva negotiations, saying it's "holding the talks hostage" by refusing to have the issue of counter-terrorism on the agenda.

Bashar Ja'afari also on Thursday accused the main opposition delegation — which includes exiled politicians as well as representatives of armed factions — of obstructing efforts to form a single opposition delegation.

The main opposition delegation has the backing of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Western nations.

Ja'afari says there are "terrorists" in their ranks and that their loyalties lay with foreign intelligence agencies rather than the homeland.

He made the remarks after an hours-long meeting with U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura who is trying to get three opposition factions and the government delegation to set an agenda for future talks.


7:40 p.m.

Al-Qaida has confirmed that its deputy leader, known as Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria.

The group praised al-Masri as a hero and "wise leader" with a "long career of contributions" to holy war, or jihad, in a statement on Thursday.

It says he was killed in a "Crusader strike" in Syria, calling it "another in the crimes of America and its Crusader alliance."

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist organizations, said al-Masri — the nom de guerre of Egyptian militant Abdullah Mohammed Abdulrahman — may have been killed in a strike on Sunday on a vehicle in Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

Al-Masri was general deputy to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the top leader of al-Qaida when Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in 2011.


6:10 p.m.

Syria's military has announces that it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group for the second time in a year.

The army statement released on Thursday evening says that government forces are now in control of the town, following a series of military operations and with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with "allied and friendly troops" — shorthand for Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

IS defenses of the town had begun to erode on Sunday, with the government troops reaching Palmyra's outskirts on Tuesday.

This is the government's second campaign to retake the desert town. It seized Palmyra from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.


4:45 p.m.

The Kremlin's spokesman says President Vladimir Putin has been informed by Russia's defense minister that Syrian government forces have taken control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

Dmitry Peskov says Putin was given the report on Thursday by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, according to Russian news agencies. The reports did not give details or elaborate on the extent of Russian air support.

Syrian state media said the government forces battling the Islamic State group re-entered Palmyra earlier in the day, aiming to retake the historic town that they had lost to the militants in December.


2:30 p.m.

U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish troops say Russia has brokered an agreement between them and Turkish-backed opposition fighters. The deal seeks to avoid clashes between the two mutually hostile rivals, both fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, says that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line as rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River.

This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara there was no such agreement between Russia and the Syrian Kurds.

Kurdish-led forces captured the northern town of Manbij from IS last August, prompting Turkey to deploy troops into northern Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish forces a terrorist organization, linked to its home-grown Kurdish insurgency. Turkish troops are stationed in the Syrian town of al-Bab, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Manbij.


2:15 p.m.

Syrian state media say that military forces have entered Palmyra in the quest to again take the town from the Islamic State group.

Palmyra, home to some of the world's most prized Roman ruins, was seized again by IS in December.

Syria's state news agency SANA says that government troops entered the town's archaeological site on Thursday. It said IS militants were fleeing from the area.

IS defenses began crumbling on Sunday, with the government reaching the town's outskirts on Tuesday.

Activist-run Palmyra News Network says the advancing forces have pounded the town with artillery and airstrikes.

This is the government's second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later.


1:15 p.m.

Turkey's foreign minister says with the completion of an operation to retake the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, Turkish troops will head to Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust it of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Thursday said Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces and which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with the Islamic State group. He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces.

Cavusoglu added that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.


10:50 a.m.

The United Nations envoy to Syria is working round the clock in a bid to secure a modest victory in the fourth round of talks held in Geneva.

Staffan de Mistura is due for another round of meetings Thursday marking a week of bilateral talks with the government delegation and opposition groups.

A top Syrian opposition negotiator told journalists overnight Wednesday the "envoy is really keen to start a political process on the basis of a clear agenda."

Nasr al-Hariri said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics.

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