- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) - The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):

8:40 p.m.

The U.N. envoy for Syria says significant gaps remain between the sides taking part in the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

Staffan de Mistura emerged Thursday from the fourth day of talks to tell reporters that “the distance between the two sides is large.”

De Mistura is shuttling between the Syrian government representatives and those of the Western-backed opposition during the so-called proximity talks.

He says he had “substantive” talks with the opposition High Negotiations Committee on Thursday and that he would be hosting both sides separately on Friday.

He also says “areas of commonality” between the two sides include a belief in preserving the “integrity of the country.”

De Mistura added that there were “no discussions about federalism” - a reference to the main Syrian Kurdish group’s declaration earlier in the day of a de facto federal region in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.


3:20 p.m.

A U.N. official says that despite the Russian troops’ drawdown in Syria, the mission is looking to for continued help from Russia on aid deliveries in the war-torn country.

Jan Egeland, supervisor of U.N. humanitarian aid shipments, says he hopes Russia will remain as “instrumental” in helping convoys get through to besieged areas as it has been up to now.

He says that Russia helped “in many places” where convoys had problems getting through. He noted a case in Moadamiyeh, near Damascus, when a convoy was stuck at a checkpoint for over 30 hours and “Russia helped us getting through.”

Egeland, who is the humanitarian aid adviser to the U.N.’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, spoke to reporters after a meeting of his task force in Geneva on Thursday.


1:40 p.m.

The Syrian government and its opponents have rejected a declaration by Syrian Kurds of a federal region in northern Syria.

A statement issued by the Syrian Foreign Ministry says the declaration made in the town of Rmeilan in Syria’s Hassakeh province Thursday is unconstitutional and worthless.

It warned against any attempt to encroach upon the integrity of Syrian territories.

The Syrian National Coalition, one of the main Syrian opposition groups, also said it rejects such unilateral declarations and warned of any attempt to form autonomous regions that “confiscate the will of the Syrian people.”

The statements came after the Syria’s main Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party, declared a federal region in Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.


1:30 p.m.

A Kurdish official says the main Syrian Kurdish faction has declared a federal region in Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.

Nawaf Khalil, an official with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), says the announcement was made Thursday at a Kurdish conference being held in the town of Rmeilan in the northern province of Hassakeh.

The declaration comes as Syrian government representatives and their opponents are holding talks in Geneva on ways to end the war. The PYD, which is viewed by Turkey as a terrorist organization, has been excluded from those talks.

Khalil said that the federal region declared Thursday was called “Rojava - northern Syria.” Rojava is a Kurdish word that refers to three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under Kurdish control in northern Syria: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin.


1:15 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin says Russia can again build up its forces in Syria “in a few hours” if necessary, and will continue striking extremist groups.

Putin made the statement in the Kremlin Thursday while honoring Russian military officers who have taken part in the Syrian campaign.

On Monday, Putin ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian warplanes from Syria, voicing hope that it would contribute to the success of Syria peace talks that began in Geneva.

Putin emphasized that the Russian air base and a naval facility in Syria will remain and Russia will keep enough forces there to protect them and to continue the fight against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and other groups considered extremist by the United Nations.


1 p.m.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman says it’s up to the Syrians themselves to decide on whether the country should become a federation.

Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that the future of Syria should be discussed in an inclusive dialogue involving all of the nation’s religious and ethnic groups.

He made the statement while asked to comment on a plan by the Syrian Kurds to declare a federal region in the area they control across northern Syria. The idea was promptly dismissed by both the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the rebels.

Peskov emphasized that Russia has consistently pushed for the Kurds to be represented in Syria peace talks, adding that consensus is essential for determining Syria’s fate. He added that, “It’s important for Syria to remain a single state.”


11:30 a.m.

The commander of the Russian Air Force says the withdrawal of the bulk of the Russian forces from Syria should be complete in two to three days.

Col.-Gen. Viktor Bondarev said in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily on Thursday that the Air Force aims to meet President Vladimir Putin’s deadline and pull out in the next two to three days.

Putin on Monday announced the withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria to end a five-and-a-half-month campaign there. The first group of bombers left for Russia on Tuesday. Moscow didn’t specify how many aircraft and troops would be withdrawn. It has not revealed how many soldiers it has deployed to Syria, but U.S. estimates of the number of Russian military personnel vary from 3,000 to 6,000.

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