December 22, 2017 / 11:36 AM / 6 months ago

Russia, partners fix date for Syrian congress in Sochi

ASTANA (Reuters) - A Syrian congress of national dialogue will be held in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30, Russia and its partners Turkey and Iran said on Friday, while the United Nations urged them to support the struggling Geneva peace process.

FILE PHOTO - Members of the delegations take part in the peace talks on Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan December 22, 2017. REUTERS/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov

Moscow, Tehran and Ankara announced the date in a joint statement after talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, which also involved the Damascus government and some opposition groups.

But the trio has yet to agree a list of participants - Turkey has earlier objected to the presence of the main Syrian Kurdish group - and confirm their participation. Some rebels said they had not yet made up their mind.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who also attended the Astana talks, said that Russia’s plan to convene the congress should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the U.N.-led Geneva talks on ending the war in Syria.

Opposition groups present at the talks sided with him.

“As for the Sochi conference…the United Nations assesses any (such) initiative through its role and its help in achieving peace,” the rebel delegation said.

“We told the Russians that Sochi will not be an alternative to Geneva, and we want to end the misery of the Syrian people and let humanitarian aid in,” Ahmed Tohme, the head of the delegation, said in the statement.

The rebel delegation said its focus was on making progress in the file of detainees and forcibly disappeared people. The Astana trio has been discussing the issue since April but so far failed to reach a final agreement.

Instead, they set up a working group on detainees on Friday, which de Mistura said was “commendable as a first step towards reaching a comprehensive arrangement between the conflicting parties”.

The warring sides - who continue to avoid direct talks in Astana - traded barbs once again, with the rebels accusing the Damascus government of cooperating with Islamic State, which has been defeated but not fully eliminated.

Government negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, in turn, described the presence of Turkish and U.S. forces in Syria as “blatant aggression”, even though Russia and Iran which back Damascus have agreed to Ankara’s role in safeguarding the so-called de-scalation zone in the Idlib province.

“We demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of foreign troops from our territory,” Ja’afari told reporters.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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