US, Russia close in on Syria truce deal but differences remain

The United States and Russia could not agree Friday on how to bring about a broad truce in Syria, but the top diplomats of the two key players in this conflict announced that such a deal was imminent.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met for 12 hours in Geneva to discuss a ceasefire that would allow the Russia-backed government and the US-supported rebels to restart peace talks.

"We have completed the vast majority of technical discussions that were focussed on making the cessation of hostilities real," Kerry told reporters after the talks.

"I think in the nearest time we will present the fruits of our joint efforts," Lavrov said.

In the next few days, Russian and US diplomats would work out the few remaining technical difficulties, both said without specifying the problem areas.

However, Kerry made clear that Syrian regime forces and its foreign allies need to stop attacking Syrian civilians and to stop taking rebel territories.

"As we stand here tonight, Aleppo continues to be besieged and bombarded by the regime and its allies including Iran, Russia and Hezbollah" he said, referring to the city for which the United Nations has demanded a 48-hour humanitarian truce.

Lavrov stressed that the US has yet to fulfill its promise to separate rebels from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra front, which have been fighting side by side.

"Without a delineation between normal, healthy opposition forces and terrorists, I see no possibility of reaching a long-term and comprehensive cessation of hostilities," he said.

Kerry acknowledged that the al-Nusra front, which recently renamed itself as Fatah al-Sham, is a terrorist organisation.

Neighbouring countries that have influence in Syria would be enlisted to separate rebels from these extremists, he said.

UN-brokered peace talks broke down in April as a previous truce crumbled.

Kerry and Lavrov met while the first local residents and rebel fighters left the Damascus suburb of Daraya Friday under a deal that will see the area evacuated after a four-year government siege.

The UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, called Russia and the US to ensure that the evacuees could leave freely and safely.

Pro-government al-Mayadeen television showed jubilant regime fighters praising President Bashar al-Assad on the outskirts of the town as busses and ambulances carried evacuees out.

The opposition reacted bitterly. "It was the international community who failed, and failed the people of Daraya," George Sabra of the opposition peace talks team told dpa.

The town had only received its first food aid shipment in June, after four years of a siege imposed by government forces. Shortly afterwards, it was hit by government airstrikes that, according to local activists, prevented food distributions.

Residents were suffering from malnutrition prior to these deliveries, according to the activists.

The Syrian government has now regained control or negotiated local truces in much of the Damascus hinterland that fell into rebel hands earlier in the five-year conflict.

The evacuation of Daraya will help it secure the Mezzeh military airport, a key strategic facility in Damascus.

But the opposition charges that many of the government gains in the region have been won through siege and starvation, with rebels forced to surrender or sign local truces in order to gain supplies and put an end to devastating attacks.

According to the UN, some 600,000 people are currently under siege in Syria. Most of them are in rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces, though both rebels and Islamic State extremists are also imposing sieges on government-held areas.

The figures do not include Aleppo in northern Syria, where up to 2 million are trapped after government and rebel forces cut each others' supply lines.

The Daraya deal is due to see some 3,500 rebel fighters and their families, as well as 4,000 civilians transported out.

A total of 270 fighters and their families, and 300 other civilians, left Friday, said a negotiator who asked not to be named.

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