BEIRUT: Syrian government officials sat face-to-face with rebels for the second time in three weeks in Kazakhstan on Thursday, as diplomats stepped up efforts to lay the groundwork for U.N.-brokered peace talks next week.
In Geneva, U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland called on parties to allow aid convoys to reach besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria to demonstrate "goodwill" before envoys gather for talks on Feb. 23.
Egeland lamented that not a single U.N.-arranged land convoy has reached any of more than a dozen besieged towns or villages this year, citing a lack of approvals from authorities.
He said relief convoys were lining up Thursday in hopes of delivering aid to the opposition-held enclave of al-Waer in Homs, Syria's third-largest city.
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was meanwhile meeting with top Russian officials in Moscow in the run-up to the anticipated Feb. 23 start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva.
The meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, includes representatives from the government and armed rebel groups, and is aimed at reinforcing a cease-fire that has violated on a daily basis. The Geneva talks will include the exiled civilian opposition and will have as their goal a broader political settlement to the nearly six-year conflict.
The rebels and pro-government forces are meanwhile clashing in the Daraa governorate in southern Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says an al-Qaida-linked faction attacked government forces Sunday, shattering an extended spell of calm in the contested region.
It says government forces have responded with a relentless barrage of artillery and airstrikes, destroying at least one field hospital in the contested provincial capital, also called Daraa.
Issam al-Rais, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army's Southern Front, said mainstream rebel factions were also taking part in the fighting, in response to persistent government violations of the Dec. 30 cease-fire.
"If the regime disciplines itself, then we are committed to the cease-fire," al-Rais told the AP.
Turkish and Syrian opposition forces meanwhile pounded the northern Syrian town of al-Bab as pro-government forces attacked the nearby village of Tadef. Both sides are trying to expel the Islamic State group from the region and claim it for themselves.
The two sides are about 5 kilometers (3 miles) apart.
The Observatory said 24 civilians have been killed under Turkish and Syrian opposition fire in al-Bab in the past 24 hours. The figure could not be independently confirmed.
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