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Kerry heading to Mideast to push for peace talks

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MUSCAT, Oman – Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Jordan today for talks with Mideast and European allies to promote a negotiated end to the crisis in Syria, as government and rebel forces battled for control of the strategic city of Al-Qusair.

Kerry will press leaders from 10 other nations providing humanitarian or military support to the Syrian opposition – including Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to back a U.S.-Russian effort to persuade Syria’s government and rebels to come together for negotiations next month toward a cease-fire and establishing a transitional government.

Today’s meeting in Amman will include consultations about aid provided by various countries to opposition forces and the humanitarian crisis in Syria that has spread to neighboring nations, according to a State Department official.

The 26-month conflict between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Syrian rebels has taken more than 70,000 lives and created more than 1.5 million refugees, according to United Nations estimates.

Government fighter planes and heavy artillery pounded rebel-held Al-Qusair on Tuesday, bringing the death toll from three days of clashes to more than 90, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The United States is concerned about a possible massacre in Al-Qusair of Sunni Muslim civilians opposed to Assad. The U.S. official who briefed reporters cited the slaughter of several hundred civilians that he said was committed by regime militias in the nearby town of Banias. The official said the world will hold Assad’s forces accountable for any such atrocities.

Meanwhile, an opposition commander Tuesday threatened to wipe communities inhabited by minority Shiite Muslims and Assad’s Alawite sect “off the map” in retaliation if Al-Qusair falls to government forces and pro-rebel Sunni civilians are massacred.

“We don’t want this to happen, but it will be a reality imposed on everyone,” Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, told Al-Arabiya television Monday. “It’s going to be an open, sectarian, bloody war to the end.”

Al-Qusair is close to the highway linking Damascus to the coast and has been a conduit for weapons flowing through Lebanon to the anti-Assad rebels.

The Obama administration is also concerned by opposition reports of foreign combatants. Free Syrian Army rebels say fighters from Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah are on the battlefield in Al-Qusair aiding Syrian government forces.

Hezbollah and Shiite-led Iran have been key allies of Assad’s government, whose upper ranks come from the Alawite sect, derived from Shiite Islam. Leaders of the rebel army and political opposition are mostly Sunni, and are backed by Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.


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