Peace still possible in Syria, says Foreign Minister

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in a TV interview broadcast Monday that an internationally-brokered cease-fire for Syria is still viable, as rescue workers in Aleppo cleaned up from what they said were the worst airstrikes on rebel-held areas of the northern city in five years.

Al-Moallem, in the interview on Mayadeen TV from New York, also said President Bashar Assad's administration is prepared to take part in a unity government, incorporating elements from the opposition, an offer that has been rejected in the past by his opponents.

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The interview comes amid spiraling violence in Syria, particularly around the contested city of Aleppo. According to opposition activists, more than 200 civilians have been killed in the past week under a sustained aerial campaign that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura called one of the worst of the 5 1/2-year war. The United Nations Security Council convened an emergency meeting but failed to take any action because of deep divisions between Russia and the Western powers.

"What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it's barbarism," said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. "It's apocalyptic what is being done in eastern Aleppo."

Al-Moallem accused the U.S., Britain, and France of convening the Security Council meeting a day earlier in order to support "terrorists" inside Syria. But he said ongoing communications between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meant a truce agreement brokered two weeks ago is "not dead."

Syria's military declared the cease-fire ended one week ago.

The spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the cease-fire in Syria is ineffective, but that Moscow is not losing hope for a political solution to the country's crisis.

However, Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that the Kremlin is concerned that "terrorists are using the cease-fire regime to regroup, to replenish their arsenals and for obvious preparations to carry out attacks."

Peskov also took issue with harsh criticism by the United States and Great Britain over Russia's actions in Syria.

He said Russia considers the tone of the criticism unacceptable and "such rhetoric is capable of causing serious harm to the resolution process" in Syria.

Al-Moallem's comments came as a second group of rebel gunmen and their families began evacuating from an opposition neighborhood in central Syria this month.

Some 120 gunmen and their families are expected to leave the al-Waer neighborhood in the central city of Homs as part of an agreement to restore the government's authority over the neighborhood, Homs Governor Talal Barazi said.

The developments further signal Assad's determination to settle the country's 5-1/2 year long war on his own terms, securing surrenders through sieges and staying in power at least through an interim period to steer the country out of crisis.

Pro-government forces have kept the al-Waer neighborhood under a steadily tightening siege since November 2013, prohibiting food and medical supplies from reaching the remaining 75,000 residents, down from 300,000 before the start of the war in 2011.

In exchange for the evacuations, the government is permitting aid convoys to supply the neighborhood with badly needed food and medical supplies.

A Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy of 36 trucks delivered assistance for 4,000 families in the district Saturday.

U.N. humanitarian officials have condemned the sieges against civilians as "medieval" and in contravention to international law.

In New York, al-Moallem reaffirmed his government's proposed roadmap to end Syria's war, saying Damascus would support a referendum on a new constitution followed by parliamentary elections and the formation of a unity government.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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