Syria-based groups say talks may be 'last chance'

Associated Press
This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a Free Syrian Army fighter firing an AK-47 during a battle against the Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad, in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. Syrian troops seized control of the suburb of Sabina from rebels on Thursday. State-run news agency SANA said the area had been used as a base to smuggle weapons and ammunition to rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus. Activists said Syrian troops launched a major offensive Friday to recapture the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)
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BEIRUT (AP) — An international peace conference proposed by the United States and Russia may be the last chance to negotiate an end to Syria's civil war, a coalition of Syria-based opposition groups said Monday.

The call came as Syrian government forces consolidated control over yet another northern town, part of a steadily advancing offensive that has reversed rebel gains in recent weeks.

In Damascus, Syria's state news agency said a mortar shell hit a school bus Monday in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood, killing four children and the bus driver. It said four children and two teachers were also wounded.

"This is the only available framework and might be the last chance to resolve the crisis in Syria," the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change said in a statement. Earlier in the day, Syria's main Western-backed opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said it too supported the Geneva talks and intended to attend them later this year.

Neither of the groups, however, has much influence over the disparate armed factions fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The Syria-based opposition ranges from officials close to the government, to intellectuals and parties that have opposed Assad's Baath party for decades. The exiled group ranges from secular intellectuals to Islamic activists.

In its statement Monday, the exiled Coalition said it would only attend the Geneva talks if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases political prisoners. The group itself wants any future transitional government to exclude Assad and his close allies — a demand the Syrian government has rejected.

The proposed Geneva conference faces a series of obstacles: the most powerful and best-armed rebel groups aren't party to the talks, and most fighting units are disorganized bands with little central command or leadership. Even if an agreement is reached in Geneva, it is unclear if it will be accepted on the ground.

As diplomats have been trying to convene peace talks, the fighting on the ground has raged on.

Government forces took over the town of Tel Aran and other positions in the northern province of Aleppo, state media said, a day after they consolidated control of a key military base held by rebels since February. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives its information from a network of activists on the ground, also reported the government advances.

The Observatory and an Aleppo activist said they believed the government's gains were partly caused by rebel infighting. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in particular, they said, was trying to drive weaker opposition groups from rebel-held areas.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization said it has now confirmed 13 cases of polio in Syria as part of the first outbreak of the highly communicable disease in the country in 14 years. The WHO also said genetic sequencing indicates the strain is closely linked to one that originated in Pakistan and was detected in environmental samples in Egypt last year.

The U.N. has launched a massive vaccination campaign across the Middle East to try to control the outbreak.

Also Monday, Human Rights Watch said it had documented 56 attacks by the Syrian air force using incendiary weapons since November 2012, and called on the Damascus government to immediately stop using the munitions.

"Syria has used incendiary weapons to inflict terrible harm on civilians, including many children," said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at HRW. "Yet where is the international outcry? Other countries should condemn Syria's use of incendiary weapons just as they have its use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs."

The New York-based group said most of the evidence it collected indicates that warplanes and helicopters operated by the Syrian Air Force are being used to deliver incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire and cause massive burns on victims.

HRW said its conclusions are based on field research, witness accounts, videos and photos.

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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