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US, Russia join to push for end to Syria’s war

Plan to hold talks possibly this month

MOSCOW — Russia and the United States announced Tuesday that they would seek to convene an international conference aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, jointly intensifying their diplomatic pressure on the combatants to peacefully settle a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives and left millions displaced and desperate.

Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, announced their agreement to arrange the conference, possibly before the end of the month. Kerry, who was visiting Russia seeking to find common ground on the Syria conflict, told reporters at a joint appearance with Lavrov in Moscow that the aim would be to push the government of President Bashar Assad and the Syrian opposition to ­attend.

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Kerry said both Russia and the United States want to hold the conference “as soon as practical, possibly, hopefully as soon as the end of this month.”

Russia is Assad’s most important foreign patron, and the United States supports the insurgency that has been seeking to depose him.

The announcement appeared to signal a strong desire by both countries to halt what has been a dangerous escalation in the conflict, with evidence of chemical weapons use and a surge in the number of civilians fleeing combat and overwhelming Syria’s neighbors. Israeli aerial attacks this past weekend on suspected munitions sites in Syria heightened tensions in the region.

It was unclear how Kerry and Lavrov would persuade the antagonists in the two-year-old conflict to put aside their hostilities for talks. But word of the Russian-US diplomatic effort was nonetheless an optimistic spot on an otherwise a bleak day in the conflict.

Earlier Tuesday, four UN soldiers patrolling part of the disputed Golan Heights area between Syria and Israel were detained by Syrian insurgents, the second time in two months that members of the international peacekeeping force in that region have become entangled in Syria’s civil war.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the detentions and called for the immediate release of the peacekeepers. A spokesman for Ban told reporters that all parties must respect the peacekeeping force’s “freedom of movement and safety and security.”

In Geneva, UN relief agency officials said that the number of displaced Syrians inside the country had more than doubled in the past two months, to 4.25 million, and that roughly 1 in 3 Syrians, or about 6.8 million, needed urgent assistance — half of them children.

A Syrian insurgent group that calls itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, responsible for the last abduction of UN peacekeepers in the Golan region, asserted that it had taken custody of the four soldiers for their own safety and posted a photograph of the detainees on Facebook. All are Filipinos and did not appear to be harmed.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the UN departments that oversee its global peacekeeping operations, said efforts to secure the release of the peacekeepers were underway. Guerrero said she could not confirm the identities of their abductors but said they were seized near the hamlet of Al Jamlah.

The Martyrs of Yarmouk detained 21 Filipino members of the Golan peacekeeping force on March 6. That group was freed after four days.

After that abduction, force commanders deployed more armored cars and decreased the number of patrols.

The Filipino soldiers are a component of the UN Disengagement Observer Force, the peacekeeping unit responsible for patrolling the Golan Heights buffer zone between Israel and Syria, established in 1974 after a war in which Israel seized part of the area from Syria. Both countries remain in a technical state of war.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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