GENEVA (AP) — Russia said Tuesday it supports the inclusion of all opposition parties in Syrian peace talks, including two hard-line Islamic groups, as President Bashar Assad’s troops captured a village north of Syria’s largest city with the aid of Russian airstrikes.
Syria’s official SANA news agency reported the capture of Hardatneen, north of Aleppo, as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura kicked off a second day of peace talks in Geneva by hosting a government delegation for the second time since Friday. He planned a separate meeting with the main opposition group later in the day.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose country has been a pivotal player along with the U.S. in helping bring about the talks, told reporters in Abu Dhabi that Russia believes all opposition parties in Syria except for the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front should take part in the negotiations.
He said the inclusion of the Army of Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, two hard-line Islamic groups, reflects the “realistic stances” on the ground in Syria. He added, however, that their participation in Geneva does not mean “recognition of them as legitimate partners” for peace.
Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s view that the two Saudi-backed factions “are considered terrorist groups,” and that one or two individuals from the two who are at the peace talks must agree to end all killings and respect Syria’s territorial integrity.
The peace talks “should represent all parties of Syrian society,” he said, adding that he hoped the presence of two groups representing the opposition would not derail the talks. He called on de Mistura, who is hosting the talks in Geneva, to deal with all parties in a balanced way.
His remarks came just days after the Syrian government said it would “never accept” the inclusion of the two groups in the talks.
Moscow has been a key ally of the government throughout the five-year uprising and began launching airstrikes on behalf of Assad’s troops four months ago.
The strikes have allowed Syrian troops to advance on a number of fronts. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors both sides of the Syrian conflict through activists on the ground, said government troops have captured three villages near Aleppo since Monday, opening access to an important supply route into the city.
The Observatory said heavy aerial bombardment, presumably from Russian warplanes, helped the ground troops advance.
In Geneva, meanwhile, both sides have accused each other of bad faith. The opposition has insisted that government airstrikes and sieges of rebel-held areas must stop ahead of the talks, which aim to bring an end to a war that has killed at least 250,000 people, displaced millions from their homes and given an opening to the Islamic State group to seize vast swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The chief negotiator of the High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition group, said he was not optimistic about the talks because the situation has not changed on the ground.
Mohammed Alloush, of the Army of Islam militant group, which is part of the HNC, told reporters in Geneva that the opposition group was still discussing whether to meet with de Mistura in the coming days.
De Mistura first met with the group on Monday, declaring it the official start to the first attempt at negotiations since previous Syrian peace talks failed two years ago.
“The situation in the ground has not changed and as long as the situation stays like that there is no optimism from our side and no good intention to reach a solution by the regime,” Alloush said.
Batrawy reported from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Geneva contributed to this report.
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