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Syrian rebels say talks will focus on strengthening truce

Beirut: Syria's rebels won't begin negotiating a political settlement with the government until measures are taken to bolster a flagging cease-fire and address urgent humanitarian concerns, the head of the opposition delegation to planned talks in Kazakhstan told The Associated Press today.

Mohammad Alloush, of the Islam Army rebel group, said he will insist on discussing the December 30 cease-fire at the talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, which have been postponed to tomorrow.

The Kazakhstan talks are brokered by Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the nearly six-year war and have taken the lead with peace efforts since December.

The Syrian government delegation met with the Russian delegation in Astana today, Syrian state TV reported.

Russia and Iran, close allies of President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels, previously pledged to enforce the cease-fire, but both sides have alleged repeated violations. A previous round of talks in Astana last month ended inconclusively.

The rebels say they are awaiting a reply from Russia to a list of requests concerning the observation and enforcement of the cease-fire.

"The paper we presented on 23 January is the basis for talks today," Alloush told the AP by phone on his way to Astana.

The Astana talks are intended to pave the way for the revival of UN-brokered talks in Geneva aimed at ending the conflict, a process which has been on hold since last April.

Those talks are slated to begin February 23.

The Kazakhstan talks were supposed to begin today but were postponed by one day. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry did not give a reason for the delay.

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