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UN envoy for Syria urges opposition to unite before talks


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BEIRUT (AP) -- The U.N. envoy for Syria urged disparate Syrian opposition groups at a meeting in the Saudi capital on Wednesday to come up with a united front ahead of another round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva later this month.

Staffan de Mistura spoke at the opening of a three-day gathering of the Syrian opposition in Riyadh, where various opposition groups are expected to come up with a unified delegation and a vision for the Nov. 28 Geneva talks.

"It is our common interest that today, you elect the best and most inclusive team among yourselves," de Mistura said. "A strong, unified team is a creative partner in Geneva and we need that."

De Mistura said he planned to have two rounds of talks in Geneva in December.

The Riyadh meeting, however, has already been marred with disagreements. The notoriously fragmented opposition is divided by visions of a future role for the incumbent Syrian President Bashar Assad, the length of a transitional period as well as the constitution that will see the country move toward elections.

Around 30 various opposition delegations are attending the meeting.

The conflict in Syria, now in its sixth-year, has all but been frozen amid a series of cease-fires. A political solution has long been elusive.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in opening remarks that the opposition meeting comes amid international consensus to reach a resolution.

"There is no resolution to the crisis without Syrian consensus that achieves the demands of the Syrian people and ends their suffering," al-Jubeir said, adding that a resolution must be based on U.N. resolutions.

Russia, which has welcomed the Saudi efforts to unify the opposition, will also be hosting a meeting that's expected to bring the opposition and Syrian government together in early December.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose military intervention in the war backed the Syrian government, spoke by telephone with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday. The two discussed the latest regional developments and security in the region, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Putin also held an hour-plus phone call on Tuesday with President Donald Trump. They discussed efforts to bring peace to Syria, as well as a number of other international issues, the White House said.

On Wednesday, Putin met with Iranian and Turkish counterparts to discuss the Syrian conflict amid a diplomatic push from Moscow to reach new resolutions. Putin hosted the Syrian president in Sochi on Monday and discussed with Assad potential new initiatives. Iran and Russia are main backers of Assad while Turkey has supported the opposition.

The Kremlin said that ahead of the meeting with Assad, Putin had assured the leaders of Turkey and Iran that Russia "will work with the Syrian leadership" to make sure that any agreements that could be reached on Wednesday between Russia, Iran and Turkey "would be viable."

It wasn't immediately clear, however, if the Kremlin put any pressure on Assad to accept whatever deal might come out of Wednesday's summit.

Amnesty International said Wednesday that violations and crimes have been perpetrated by all parties to the Syrian conflict. The rights group said in a statement that Eastern Ghouta, an area on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, has been under a government siege since 2012.

"All parties to the conflict must immediately lift all sieges of civilian areas throughout Syria and allow unimpeded access to impartial humanitarian relief for those in need," Amnesty said. "Russia, Iran and Turkey must ensure that agreements between parties to the conflict do not involve unlawful forced displacement."

Some of the opposition delegations in Riyadh are backed by Gulf countries, which had sided with the anti-Assad rebellion, while others have been backed by Russia. Another opposition group is backed by Egypt, which has also kept contacts with the Syrian government.

The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV said some members of the Russia-backed delegation withdrew from the meeting. A member of the delegation, Qadri Jamil, said they withdrew to object other delegations putting conditions on the talks, including limiting a future role for Assad. The Russia-backed opposition is promoting political reform under Assad's rule.

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Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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