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John Kerry claims progress in talks on Syria

Support group renews call in Vienna for end to hostilities and immediate humanitarian access to besieged communities.

Senior diplomats

World leaders have renewed their calls for a cessation of hostilities in Syria after meeting in Vienna hoping to restart peace talks aimed at halting Syria's ongoing civil war.

The meeting on Tuesday was led by John Kerry, US secretary of state; Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister; and Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy to Syria, as well as other leaders from the 17-nation International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

They confirmed their support for an end to the violence and the need for immediate humanitarian access to besieged communities.

While the parties involved did not set a date for the next round of peace talks, Kerry said the gathering in the Austrian capital was a step in the right direction.

"All the parties [...] have agreed on a basic framework which is a united, non-sectarian Syria that is able to choose its future through a transitional governing body," said Kerry.

"The challenge we face now is to transform these possibilites into the reality of an agreement." De Mistura has said the involved parties "can't wait too long" to set a date.

Little headway

US officials travelling with Kerry say the US still insists that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should go as part of a "framework for political transition" with an August 1 deadline.

But Assad, buoyed by military support from Russia and Iran, has shown no sign he is prepared to leave and his forces are still battling for territory.

UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva ended last month without any progress after the delegation of the opposition walked out, citing surging attacks by Assad's forces and his Russian ally, as well as problems with humanitarian aid shipments.

In the past weeks, more than 300 people have been killed in government air strikes in Aleppo province alone, while deadly fighting has also raged in other parts of Syria, including Idlib, Deir Az Zor and outskirts of Damascus.

A truce deal in place since February does not cover the armed groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syria branch.

While the Syrian opposition demands that the president step down and pave the way for a political transition, the government delegation in Geneva has so far refused to talk about such a scenario.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, said his country supported the truce and a peace dialogue, but he warned that a silencing of arms might aid armed groups operating in Syria.

"We should not allow terrorists to use the cessation of hostilities for further terror operations," he said.

Russia's position

Russia, Assad's key foreign backer, supports the ISSG platform on paper but backs Syrian government forces on the ground.

Russia nevertheless endorsed the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined the ISSG peace plan in international law, and Lavrov says he supports it.

The Vienna talks come as fighter jets from the US-led coalition continue their attack on ISIL targets in Aleppo, while moderate rebels have launched their own offensive on the ground.

Meanwhile, a government air strike in the city left at least three civilians dead early on Tuesday, among them a mother and her young daughter, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Government forces continue to blockade several rebel-held areas around Damascus, stopping all food and medical aid in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

And ISIL and the al-Nusra Front, not party to the ceasefire or peace talks, still hold vast swaths of the country and carry out attacks.

In Bdama, in Idlib province in the northwest, large swathes of which are held by al-Nusra, government air raids left eight civilians dead, including four women and three children.

Fighting has also broken out between al-Nusra Front and other factions, killing more than 300 fighters in recent weeks.


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