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Syria plans no new concessions during talks

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A man rode a bicycle through Damascus on Sunday. Some areas around the capital recently have been blockaded.
A man rode a bicycle through Damascus on Sunday. Some areas around the capital recently have been blockaded.ABD DOUMANY

BEIRUT — The Syrian government will not make any new concessions in future peace talks at a time when the Syrian army is making progress in different parts of the country, a senior official in President Bashar Assad's ruling Baath party said in remarks published Sunday.

Hilal al-Hilal's comments come ahead of scheduled peace talks in Geneva to work on ending Syria's nearly five-year conflict, which has killed more than 250,000 people. His remarks were published by state media Sunday.

On Sunday, Syrian troops captured the town of Rabiaa and the village of Rawda in the coastal province of Latakia, their latest push since Russia began airstrikes last year, according to state news agency SANA and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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The Geneva talks were to begin Monday but will probably be delayed. Last week, several rebel groups announced they would not participate in the negotiations unless the government allows humanitarian aid into areas that its forces are blockading.

A UN peace plan envisions an 18-month timetable for a political transition.

The Syrian opposition says Assad should have no role in Syria's future, even during a transitional period. Assad, whose family has governed Syria for more than four decades, has said he will step down only if voted out. His term is not scheduled to expire until 2021.

"We are not going to give today what we did not give over the past five years," Hilal said late Saturday, during a visit to troops in areas they recently captured from insurgents outside the capital, Damascus.

"This year will be the year of victory for Syria because of the heroic acts and sacrifices by its army and people," Hilal said.

Also Sunday, the government newspaper, Tishrin, said in an editorial that the Geneva talks should only bring in negotiators with genuine plans for rebuilding Syria, and not "representatives for the agendas terrorist-supporting countries that seek a seat for terrorism at the dialogue table."

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Tishrin was referring to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, who are strong backers of the opposition that is trying to remove Assad from power.

Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive against rebels in different parts of Syria shortly afterward, regaining control of dozen of towns and villages.

Russia has been one of the strongest supporters of Assad's since the start of the uprising in 2011.

Opposition groups have accused Russia of obstructing the talks by trying to impose restrictions on which opposition groups can participate. Some opposition groups have said they will not take part in talks while Syrians die from government blockades and in Russian and government airstrikes.

UN officials and aid organizations have warned that hundreds of thousands of people across Syria in areas besieged by government forces and opposition fighters are at risk of starvation and worsening malnutrition.

The warring parties are cutting off food and medicine to more than a dozen areas, causing civilians to die and complicating renewed peace efforts to end the country's civil war. Reports of starving people in the town of Madaya, which has been blockaded by government forces, has in recent weeks added urgency to the issue.

Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross who is based in Damascus, said in an interview with the Washington Post that the humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating.

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"As the conflict goes on and on, the situation on the ground is collapsing, especially in areas that are under siege," Krzysiek told the Post.

Even before Madaya, sieges were common in the Syrian war, which has led to more than 250,000 deaths, displaced millions and generated a humanitarian catastrophe. But the blockade tactic appears to be increasingly applied as Assad's forces wage a new offensive against rebel groups.

UN officials and aid workers say a growing number of sick, elderly, and young appear to be succumbing to otherwise preventable illnesses.

In some places, such as Madaya, people have starved to death, aid agencies say.

"We're starving to death, women and children. We have no food," said Dani Qappani, an activist in Moadamiyeh, an opposition-held town that is also besieged by government forces just a few miles southwest of Damascus. In recent weeks, as many as seven people in the community of 44,000 have died because food and medicine have been cut off, he said.

The Russian intervention with airstrikes against rebel forces has exacerbated already dire humanitarian conditions in the country, with progovernment forces on the ground in turn tightening sieges on opposition strongholds, analysts and activists say.

Russia, a key ally of Assad's, says its intervention is aimed at the Islamic State militant group, but Syrian opposition groups say the air raids have mostly targeted rebel groups.

UN officials and aid workers have increasingly expressed alarm about residents who are cut off from food and medicine by belligerents on both sides of the conflict.

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