Geneva: At least 51 people, including 13 rebels, died in a single day of Syrian government air strikes and shelling of opposition-controlled districts of Aleppo, activists said on Thursday as international mediators were trying to salvage faltering peace negotiations in Geneva.
The Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said most of the victims were killed by air strikes and barrel bombs dumped on eight rebel-held districts of the northern city on Wednesday.
The rest died from artillery shelling, sniper fire and in clashes between forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad and rebels fighting to overthrow him.
The bombings in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, are part of a campaign by Al Assad’s forces to wrest control of neighbourhoods that were seized by rebels in mid-2012.
The Observatory has been documenting Syria’s conflict since its start in March 2011 through a network of activists on the ground.
It released its report on the latest Aleppo casualties on Thursday, ahead of a trilateral meeting between senior US and Russian officials and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, and Syrian government and opposition representatives in Geneva.
Lakhdar Brahimi was to meet Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in an attempt to unblock the process.
After three days spent trading blame for the violence wracking Syria, representatives of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and the opposition National Coalition had no scheduled meetings in Geneva on Thursday.
“The presence now of the United States and Russia comes at the right time,” opposition chief negotiator Hadi Bahra said, saying there was a need to “straighten out the negatives.”
The talks that began on January 22 were initiated by Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, a key ally of Syria.
With the process at an apparent standstill Russia seemed prepared to play a greater role, and was expected to put more pressure on the regime to move things forward.
Russia — which has rejected a Security Council resolution that would allow the delivery of food and aid to besieged Homs and other cities — on Wednesday proposed a counter-offer that not include the threat of sanctions on Damascus.
Gatilov met on Wednesday in Geneva with the regime delegation chief, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu’allam, and the opposition said it might meet the Russian diplomat on Thursday.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said late on Wednesday the Russians “intend to push these negotiations and make them succeed”.
“This was the main topic in the long meeting between Mu’allam and Gatilov,” he said, stressing though that “we believe all the pressure should be put on the other side.”
Russia has also proposed a collective meeting with the UN, Washington, Moscow and the Syrian foes, but it remained unclear if the warring parties might be invited to Thursday’s meeting between Brahimi, Gatilov and Sherman.
Washington and the Syrian opposition have said they could support such a joint meeting, while the regime has voiced scepticism.
The so-called Geneva II negotiations have so far done nothing to end the nearly three-year civil war which has claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
When the talks first began last month, Washington and especially Moscow remained on the sidelines, allowing the UN and Brahimi to run the show.
But while the first round was seen as a relative success for getting the sides to meet face-to-face, the current round, which began on Monday and is expected to last into Saturday, has achieved little beyond a restating of positions.
In Switzerland, the opposition National Coalition laid out a transition plan, including evicting foreign fighters and a process towards elections.
But the government refused to discuss it, saying the first item on the agenda had to be the battle against what it calls rebel “terrorism”.
Mekdad said the opposition would “wait for a long time” for a response to their transition plan, insisting that discussing politics before terrorism was a “recipe for disaster and failure.”