- Associated Press - Friday, January 8, 2016

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - The U.N. special envoy to Syria arrived in Damascus on Friday for talks with Syrian officials in preparation for peace negotiations between President Bashar Assad’s government and its opponents due later this month in Geneva.

Staffan de Mistura was received by deputy Syrian foreign minister, Aymen Sossan, upon arriving but did not take questions from the media.

The U.N. is urging the sides in Syria’s civil war to the negotiating table on Jan. 25 in an effort to find a resolution for the five-year conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the country’s population. Previous conferences in Geneva in 2014 failed to bring about a settlement, though this round is seen as particularly urgent after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last month endorsing a transitional plan for Syria.

Its passage was a rare show of unity among global powers, which have backed opposing sides of the conflict - Russia siding with President Bashar Assad and the United States saying the Syrian leader should step down. The U.N. resolution made no mention of Assad’s fate after the transitional period.

De Mistura’s visit follows his meetings earlier this week with Syrian opposition officials in Saudi Arabia, which supports Assad’s opponents. From Damascus, de Mistura is to travel Sunday to Iran, which is the Syrian president’s main ally in the Middle East.

The visit comes at a sensitive time, amid a Saudi-Iran spat following the Sunni kingdom’s execution of a convicted Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, which enflaming regional tensions with Shiite powerhouse Iran. The crisis has seen Saudi Arabia sever ties with Tehran after Iranian protesters attacked two Saudi diplomatic posts.

Many fear the Saudi-Iranian tensions could have repercussions on this month’s planned peace talks.

Also Friday, over 200 Syrians remained stranded at Beirut’s International Airport after they could no longer fly to Turkey following a new visa regulation. Syrians used to be able to fly to Turkey without a visa, but an Ankara decree effective midnight, Jan. 8, annulled the privilege. It was published late last month, causing Syrians to scramble across the Lebanese border, heading for the Beirut airport.

Lebanese airport officials said a flight earlier Friday took 174 Syrians without visas for Turkey back to Damascus. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

____

Issa reported from Beirut.


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