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Civilian toll in air strikes climbs; Peace talks extended to Dec 15
Washington (AFP) Nov 30, 2017

Syria peace talks in Geneva extended until December 15
Geneva (AFP) Nov 30, 2017 - Negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending Syria's devastating civil war have started in a "professional and serious" atmosphere and will be extended another two weeks, the UN mediator said Thursday.

The meetings, which began Wednesday, were initially expected to last only two to three days, United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters.

"The atmosphere... compared to the past was professional and serious on both sides," he said, adding that the talks were now expected to last until December 15.

De Mistura said they would take a break over the weekend and would return to Geneva to continue the negotiations next Tuesday.

In seven past rounds on his watch the envoy has not managed to get representatives of Syria's warring sides to sit at the same table, instead of shuttling back and forth between delegations.

But on Thursday he said talks were heading in the right direction, with the two sides arriving at the UN in Geneva around the same time, and holding parallel meetings in rooms "just five metres apart".

These were "very close, proximity, parallel meetings," de Mistura said.

Syria's government had initially refused to confirm it would attend the UN-brokered peace talks after the rebels signalled they would maintain a hard line on their call for President Bashar al-Assad to be removed from office.

But government negotiators finally showed up after reportedly securing key concessions, including keeping the Assad issue off the table.

The UN mediator told reporters the negotiations so far had not touched on "the issue of the presidency", and stressed there should be "no preconditions".

The opposition, united in one delegation for the first time, has stressed it is anxious for face-to-face talks with the government, but de Mistura hinted that could still be a way off.

"Let's be frank: direct contact is good, but what is essential is being able to exchange opinions and shuttling as we do ... is good enough," he said.

Syria's six-year war has claimed more than 340,000 lives, forced millions to flee their homes and left Syria in ruins.

Earlier Thursday, de Mistura's adviser Jan Egeland told reporters that 500 people, mainly women and children, desperately needed to leave Syria's Eastern Ghouta region, one of the last rebel-held strongholds.

He warned "many of them will die" if they do not receive immediate medical care, pointing out that nine people previously on the UN's list of civilians in urgent need of evacuation had already perished.

More civilians have died in US-led air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, officials acknowledged Thursday amid criticism the American military is being less cautious about killing innocents.

The US-led coalition said that in October, an ongoing review of civilian casualty reports showed at least 801 civilians had been unintentionally killed since operations to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria began in late 2014.

The toll is up 15 from 786, when the coalition in late October last announced its findings.

As operations against IS wind down, the number of new strikes has shrunk dramatically, and on Thursday the Pentagon said 400 Marines who had been supporting local forces in the operation to recapture Raqa in Syria were coming home.

But critics say the US-led coalition has been taking greater risks with civilian lives since President Donald Trump took office and gave the military far greater leeway in how it conducts strikes compared to when Barack Obama was in power.

Monitoring group Airwars insists the official count is well below the true civilian toll of the bombing campaign, estimating that almost 6,000 innocent lives have been lost.

Military officials insist the rules of engagement are unchanged, but under Obama many more strike decisions involved civilian approval.

"Clearly the Trump administration has opened the aperture on what is acceptable risk, whether it's a special operations attack or a bombing raid, they are more aggressive," said Congressman Adam Smith, who is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee providing military oversight.

- 'Constantly improving' -

Numbers reflect this shift, with US forces in Afghanistan on course to triple the number of bombs dropped this year compared to last.

In Africa, drone strikes and ground operations against jihadists have increased dramatically.

A detailed, on-the-ground investigation by The New York Times in Iraq found one in five US-led strikes resulted in civilian casualties in that country, wildly different from the coalition claim that only 0.35 percent of strikes result in "credible" claims of civilian casualties.

The report described the opaque and often-impossible task civilians who survived strikes, or the families of those killed, have in trying to get compensation from the coalition.

The coalition appears aware of the criticisms.

In its statement, it said it is "constantly improving its visibility on and accountability for allegations" and noted that it had trained about 30 people to help weigh claims.

"We continue to hold ourselves accountable for actions that may have caused unintentional injury or death to civilians," the statement read.

In one strike detailed by the coalition on Thursday, five civilians were killed March 3 near Tabqah in Syria during a strike on an IS "weapon storage facility."

Four more had been killed in the same area on February 4 during a strike on an IS "headquarters."



Egypt's Sisi tells army to restore Sinai security in 3 months
Cairo (AFP) Nov 29, 2017
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly ordered on Wednesday his military chief of staff to restore security in Sinai within three months after militants killed more than 300 worshippers, demanding "complete brutal force." Sisi made his remarks in a televised speech to mark the birthday of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed as the country reels from the Friday massacre in a North Sinai mos ... read more

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