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UN Syria peace envoy travels to Moscow

Staffan de Mistura told reporters at least 40,000 people have been displaced in Syria since Russian airstrikes began
Geneva UN peace envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference on 12 October 2015 in Geneva

The UN peace envoy to Syria will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday, in a bid to promote a political end to the conflict as Russia intensifies its airstrikes.

According to the UN, Russian strikes have displaced 40,000 people since they began on 30 September.

"I am on my way tonight to Moscow," Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva on Monday, acknowledging that the Russian airstrikes in Syria had "introduced new dynamics" to the brutal conflict.

Russia says its airstrikes, which are coordinated with Syria's government, are targeting the Islamic State (IS) group and other "terrorist” organisations.

But the opposition and its backers say Moscow has focused more on rebel groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, some of which are supported by the West.

Russia’s targets so far, around Hama and western Aleppo, are thought by Western powers to show that Moscow is attempting to shore up Assad’s government in the face of rebel groups.

De Mistura refused to judge Russia's action, but did stress that "in all cases, the protection of civilians should be a priority, especially when actions are performed by military forces of Security Council members."

Russia has also been criticised by Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups for the high number of civilian deaths reported after its initial airstrikes.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat said he would travel on to Washington, which has also been carrying out airstrikes in Syria, "immediately after" his Moscow visit, as he struggles to set up so-called contact groups of countries with interests and influence in the Syria conflict that could help it move towards a political solution.

De Mistura proposed in July creating the contact groups in addition to four working groups composed of Syrian opposition and government representatives to discuss issues including protecting civilians and reconstruction. Several local ceasefires were in place at the time Russia began its military strikes.

Syria's key opposition National Coalition said on Sunday it would boycott the proposed talks.