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Syrian official says Geneva peace talks Nov. 23-24

Published: Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013 7:35 a.m. CST

BEIRUT — An international conference on a political solution to the Syrian conflict could take place Nov. 23-24, Syria's deputy prime minister said Thursday — the first mention of possible dates for the long-delayed gathering.

The United States and Russia have been trying to bring the Damascus government and Syria's divided opposition to the negotiating table for months, but the meeting has been repeatedly delayed and it remains unclear whether either side is really willing to hold talks while the war is deadlocked.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has not decided whether to attend, and many rebel fighters inside Syria flatly reject negotiating with President Bashar Assad's regime. The government, meanwhile, has refused to talk with the armed opposition.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Syrian deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil was quoted by Russia's RIA Novosti news agency as saying "the conference will be held on the 23rd and 24th of November."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that efforts are intensifying to try to hold the Geneva meeting in mid-November. Ban did not provide concrete dates, and it's not clear whether the schedule provided by Jamil has been agreed to by any other parties.

The renewed effort to organize the Geneva talks stems from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month to rid Syria of its chemical weapons program. The resolution also endorsed a framework for a political transition that key countries adopted last year and it called for an international conference in Geneva to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.

Syria's revolt began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against the Assad regime before eventually turning into a civil war. The conflict has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million to flee the country and left some 4.5 million others displaced within the country.

It has also proven difficult and dangerous for journalists to cover, and press freedom advocate groups rank Syria as the most dangerous country in the world for reporters. Dozens of journalists have been kidnapped and more than 25 have been killed while reporting in Syria since the conflict began.

On Thursday, Sky News Arabia that a team of its reporters has gone missing in the contested city of Aleppo. The Abu Dhabi-based channel said it lost contact on Tuesday morning with reporter Ishak Moctar, a Mauritanian national, cameraman Samir Kassab, a Lebanese national, as well as their Syrian driver whose name is being withheld at his family's request.

Sky News Arabia chief Nart Bouran says the crew was on assignment primarily to focus on the humanitarian aspects of the conflict in Aleppo. The channel appealed for any information on the team's whereabouts and for help to ensure the journalists' safe return.

Syria's largest city and former commercial capital, Aleppo has been engulfed in fighting since rebels launched an offensive on the city in mid-2012. The battle has exacted a terrific toll, killing thousands, forcing thousands more from their homes and laying waste to a city once considered one of the country's most beautiful.

The fighting has been relentless since the initial rebel assault, and on Wednesday activists reported heavy clashes around Aleppo's central prison. Rebels have besieged the facility for nearly six months in an effort to free more than 4,000 detainees believed to be held inside.

More than 150 prisoners have died during the siege, either from the shelling or from lack of medicine, or they were killed outright by the guards, opposition groups say.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and another Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham tried to storm the prison late Wednesday and early Thursday.

The siege is emblematic of the bloody, cruel war of attrition into which Syria's conflict has descended, now in its third year. In the north, including Aleppo province, rebels have succeeded in seizing large swaths of the countryside, but they have been unable to take control of urban centers.

President Bashar Assad's troops, meanwhile, have been able to hold onto bases and other strongpoints around the area, from which they can bombard rebel-held communities — but they can't take back territory.

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Associated Press writer Laura Mills in Moscow contributed to this report.

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