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US and France accuse Assad government of 'torpedoing' Syria talks

Top diplomats says government's military offensive in Aleppo scuppered suspended Geneva talks, as world leaders prepare for aid conference
A banner displays the image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AFP)

The US and France have accused President Bashar al-Assad's government of undermining peace talks to end Syria's civil war, which were suspended hours before donors were due to meet on Thursday to raise aid for the conflict-torn country.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused Damascus and Russia of "torpedoing the peace efforts" by launching an offensive near Aleppo, and said world powers would hold "in-depth consultations" on their actions at the conference.

The UN suspended the fruitless Geneva peace negotiations on Wednesday as the Syrian government said it had cut a key supply route to Syria's second city from the Turkish border with the help of Russian air raids.

It is one of several government offensives since Moscow began bombing in September, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday he saw no reason to stop until the "terrorists" were defeated.

The talks had been tipped as the most important push so far to end Syria's five-year conflict, which has killed more than 260,000 people and forced half the country's population from its homes.

But they stalled before any progress had been made, with the main opposition umbrella group saying it would not return to Geneva until the government agreed to end bombardments and allow aid into besieged cities.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said discussions would resume on 25 February, insisting this was "not the end or the failure of the talks".

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian government's push to grab territory as negotiations were meant to be getting under way proved the regime was not serious about the talks.

"The continued assault by Syrian regime forces, enabled by Russian air strikes, against opposition-held areas... has clearly signalled the intention to seek a military solution rather than enable a political one," he said.

Syria's state news agency SANA on Thursday reported "mass celebrations" in the streets of Nobel and Zahraa, two villages in Aleppo province that had been under rebel siege since 2012.

The Al-Manar television station of Lebanese militia Hezbollah broadcast what it said was exclusive footage of Syrian government and allied fighters entering the villages.

The channel showed crowds embracing soldiers and militiamen, who fired into the air as they arrived.

Fighters and residents waved the Syrian flag and the yellow Hezbollah flag, and some chanted pro-government slogans, including "God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else," in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian regret

Russia said it regretted the suspension of Syrian peace talks and expressed hope the negotiations could continue.

"One can express regret in this regard but no one expected that everything will be simple and quick," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

He said that the Kremlin hoped that it would "soon" become clear when and how the talks would resume.

"It is unlikely that someone expected immediate results from the first round. This would probably be short-sighted," Peskov said.

"Of course it is obvious that moving forward will be difficult and we are hoping that the break will be followed by another round of these truly difficult talks."

The suspension of the talks came as donors were due to gather in London with the aim of raising $9bn in aid for Syria and to help its neighbours cope with millions of people that have taken refuge on their soil.

Before the start, the UK pledged £1.2bn in aid, to be spent between 2016 and 2020, to address what Prime Minister David Cameron called "the world's biggest humanitarian crisis".

Some 4.6 million Syrians have fled to nearby countries - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt - while hundreds of thousands have travelled to Europe in the region's biggest migration crisis since World War II.

"With hundreds of thousands of people risking their lives crossing the Aegean or the Balkans, now is the time to take a new approach to the humanitarian disaster in Syria," Cameron said.

Aid from the conference will be targeted at helping the economies of Syria's neighbours, creating jobs for refugees and citizens of their host countries. It will also go towards food, shelter, medical care and rebuilding health facilities in Syria itself.

Organisers have already agreed that participants should at least "double" their contributions from 2015, when they raised $3.3 billion.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende said there was a "moral imperative, human imperative" to act.

"It's a lost generation if we're not successful tomorrow," he before the conference.

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