Syria violence escalates as peace talks near collapse
BEIRUT - Suspected government air strikes killed at least 44 civilians at markets in northwestern Syria Tuesday, as opposition chiefs said they were leaving peace talks in Geneva because of such attacks.
In some of the deadliest violence since a ceasefire took effect in February, a suspected regime bombing raid hit a vegetable market in the city of Maaret al-Numan, killing at least 37 civilians, a monitor said.
Another strike on a fish market in the nearby town of Kafranbel killed seven civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The strikes were in Idlib province, which is under the control of Al-Qaeda's Syrian offshoot Al-Nusra Front. Like the Islamic State group, Al-Nusra excluded from the ceasefire and regime forces have continued offensives in areas under its control.
The main opposition High Negotiations Committee condemned the strike at Maaret al-Numan as a "massacre" and clear violation of the truce.
"It is a dangerous escalation of an already fragile situation, showing contempt for the whole international community at a time when there is supposed to be a cessation of hostilities," HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet said in a statement.
He said the raid was "Assad's response" to the HNC's decision to suspend its formal participation in negotiations.
"Our decision to postpone our participation in the Geneva talks was taken to highlight the cynicism of the regime in pretending to negotiate while escalating the violence... The world must not ignore this challenge," Meslet said.
The troubled talks -- the latest in a long series of efforts to end Syria's five-year conflict -- failed to get off the ground this week despite hopes brought on by the ceasefire.
The partial truce, brokered by the United States and Russia, led to a dramatic drop in violence across Syria but a recent surge in fighting, especially around second city Aleppo, has raised fears of its total collapse.
The opposition announced on Monday it was putting its participation on hold to protest escalating violence and restrictions on humanitarian access in Syria.
HNC coordinator Riyad Hijab told journalists Tuesday that he and other delegates were beginning to leave Geneva.
"I will be travelling today along with some of my colleagues from the HNC. Some people left yesterday and today and they will keep leaving gradually until Friday," Hijab said.
"We will not accept negotiations while our people are still suffering," he said.
"It is not suitable, neither morally nor on the humanitarian side, to be part of negotiations when Syrians are dying daily from sieges, hunger, bombings, poisonous gases and barrel bombs."
The United Nations has insisted the talks have not collapsed, with UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura saying they would continue through the week.
He said that the indirect talks format -- which has seen the HNC and Assad's representatives meet separately with UN mediators -- created flexibility to continue the discussions.
This week's talks are meant to focus on Syria's political future, as the UN pushes a plan involving a transitional authority, a new constitution and eventual elections.
But Assad's future has been the key sticking point, with the opposition insisting he must go and the regime refusing.
The regime's lead negotiator said Tuesday it was prepared to discuss the creation of a new unity government but that Assad's fate remained off-limits.
"A broader unity government is the only topic of discussion here," said Bashar al-Jafaari, Syria's ambassador to the UN.
"It is not in our jurisdiction, it is not within our prerogatives to discuss the fate of President Bashar al-Assad."
World powers have backed the ceasefire and talks as the best hope yet to end a conflict that has devastated Syria, killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
But the rising violence in recent weeks has lowered expectations of a breakthrough.
The HNC has accused the regime of violating the ceasefire more than 2,000 times.
Hijab called for international observers to be sent in and for ceasefire violators to be held to account.
He warned against wasting time, saying: "For Syrians the price of time is blood."