US envoy John Kerry meets Europe's top diplomats in Paris

Sylvie Corbet - Associated Press

PARIS — US Secretary of State John Kerry called for the resumption of Syria peace talks Monday in Geneva following a meeting with France's new foreign minister and other senior European diplomats.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hosted yesterday's meeting in Paris which also included his British, German and Italian counterparts, and the European Union's foreign policy chief.

The meeting comes ahead of UN-sponsored indirect peace talks on Syria, which are scheduled to start Monday in Geneva amid a partial cease-fire that came into force two weeks ago and has mostly held.

"We look forward to the resumption of talks in Geneva on Monday," Kerry said in a joint news conference with his counterparts.

Fighting has continued inside Syria but to a lesser degree than in February. Government forces advanced on the ancient city of Palmyra, which is held by the Islamic State group, while continuing to clash with jihadists and rebels in other parts of the country yesterday.

In the northern part of the country, factions arrayed against the government turned against one another in an effort to assert their dominance during the cease-fire. Al-Qaeda militants swept through a rebel-held town in northern Syria, arresting US-backed fighters and looting weapons stores belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

Delegations from the Syrian government and opposition, represented in part by the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, arrived in Geneva yesterday, but with conflicting visions for the talks.

HNC spokesman Salem Mislet said the opposition would discuss the establishment of a transitional governing body in which Syrian President Bashar Assad and his associates would have no role.

"The Syrian people have submitted half a million martyrs not to keep Assad in power for a longer period but in order to terminate his presence and to put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and also to put an end to the terrorism that targeted the region," he said.

But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallam said Saturday any talk of removing Assad during the transitional period was "a red line," adding that the government rejected the UN envoy's call for presidential elections to be held in the next 18 months.

Kerry said Moallam's comments "clearly tried to disrupt the process" of negotiations.

Kerry insisted that both Iran and Russia — supporters of the Syrian regime — have adopted "an approach which dictates that there must be a political transition and that we must move toward a presidential election at some point of time."

The last round of indirect talks collapsed on Feb. 3 over a Russian-backed government offensive in Aleppo.

As the Syrian civil war enters its sixth year, Kerry reaffirmed the "determination" of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, "to defeat this barbaric organization."

The meeting's participants also issued a joint statement on Libya to express their support for the UN-sponsored unity government and call for its quick installation in the country's capital, Tripoli.

"Political unity and an inclusive and functioning government is the only way to put an end to the instability that has fueled the development of terrorism in Libya," the statement said.

Libya fell into chaos after the 2011 toppling and killing of longtime leader, Moammar Gadhafi. The country is ruled by two competing governments since 2014: an internationally-recognized body based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a rival one, backed by Islamist-allied militias, in Tripoli.

European Union countries are preparing possible sanctions against officials in Libya blamed for undermining the peace process. The issue will be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.

Additionally, diplomats have discussed a possible initiative to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as France hopes to host an international conference on the issue in the coming months. The new French Mideast peace envoy, Pierre Vimont, will travel to Washington next week to discuss France's proposal, Ayrault said.

Yemen's civil war and the Ukraine peace process were also on the agenda of the Paris talks.

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