Syria talks: Heavy bombing despite Russian calls for 'silent skies'

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Talks in Geneva resume, as the UN moves towards restarting a peace process to end the six-year war

Volunteers from the White Helmets carry a casualty on a stretcher following reported government air strikes close to Damascus on Wednesday (AFP)
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Thursday 23 February 2017 12:32 UTC
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Syrian warplanes carried out air strikes on rebel-held areas in Daraa and Hama provinces, and rebels fired rockets at government targets on Thursday, as negotiators from both sides held talks with the UN in Geneva.

The UN has sought to play down expectations for the talks, with the special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, saying he has little hope for a breakthrough, but wants to move towards restarting a peace process to end the six-year war.

De Mistura held separate meetings with delegations from the Syrian government and opposition on Thursday morning - De Mistura had declined to say on Wednesday whether there will be face-to-face talks, saying that he needs first to discuss the possibility with both sides.

An opposition spokesperson, Ahmed Ramadan, said they would use the talks to put forward a "comprehensive plan" for a political transition, which has so far been rejected by the government.

These are the first UN-mediated negotiations on Syria in almost a year, during which time the military and geopolitical context has changed massively. Even so, the same disagreements are likely to resurface.

De Mistura said Russia, a key military and political ally of President Bashar al-Assad, had asked the Syrian government to "silence their own skies in the areas touched by the ceasefire" during the talks.

Countries close to the opposition were also asked to urge them to lessen provocations, he said.

However, government planes reportedly pounded rebel-held areas of Daraa and Hama provinces on Thursday, with fierce fighting also continuing on the ground.

Over the border in Jordan, schools in the town of Ramtha were forced to close by the bombings, and by clashes over the border.

Residents of Ramtha, which lies just across the border from Syria's southern town of Daraa, said they could hear the sound of bombings from inside their houses.

There were reports that shells had fallen inside Ramtha, although Jordan's interior ministry denied this. 

Further north, the Free Syrian Army said that Islamic State - which is excluded from a shaky two-month-old ceasefire - had been chased out of all of the strategic town of al-Bab.

The FSA's legal adviser, Osama Abu Zeid, said on Thursday morning that the entirety of al-Bab had been "liberated".

The reported advance comes months after Turkey intervened directly to fight alongside Syrian rebel forces in hopes of pushing Islamic State further from its southern frontier.