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Russia to Host Syria Talks in Sochi in Late January

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Nov. 20, 2017.

Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed Friday to hold Syria peace talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi next month, a move that the U.N. Special envoy for Syria said should be assessed based on its contribution to the mandated political process under the United Nations in Geneva.

Russian news reports cited Kazakh diplomat Aidarbek Tumanov who said that during Friday's meeting in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, the parties agreed to hold the so-called Congress for National Dialogue in Sochi on January 29-30.

Earlier attempts to convene the congress were thwarted by disagreements over possible participants, primarily the involvement of the Kurds that Turkey has opposed. Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentyev told the Interfax news agency that the parties have yet to agree on the list of participants.

Tumanov said that the three countries have also decided to set up a working group that will deal with prisoner exchanges and agreed on the need to clear Syrian territory of mines.

Turkey has been a main backer of the opposition groups and rebels trying to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power while Russia and Iran have been among his main backers. The three countries have teamed up to help mediate a peace settlement for Syria's conflict, now in its seventh year, which has claimed the lives of 400,000 and caused the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The Sochi talks will open up a fourth track of talks between parties to the complex conflict in Syria. The U.N.'s own Geneva program has been supplemented by the "technical" talks in Astana brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Russia periodically opens a third track through Cairo. Egypt has provided a base to Syrian reformists seen as acceptable to the Damascus government.

"The United Nations maintains its view that any political initiative by international actors should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the mandated political process under the United Nations in Geneva," the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said in a statement. "The Special Envoy will be consulting the Secretary-General once he has received all the information required."

De Mistura's statement said the special envoy reiterates his intention to convene a ninth round of intra-Syrian talks under the U.N. auspices in January.

Syrian senior opposition official Ahmad Toma said in Astana that he will not make a unilateral decision on whether the opposition will attend next month's conference in Sochi or not, adding that he will have to raise the matter with opposition and rebel leaders in Syria.

`We don't want to take a quick decision," Toma said.

The head of the Syrian government delegation to the conference in Astana, Bashar Ja'afari, blasted the U.S. and Turkey saying both countries should pull their forces out of Syria without preconditions.

He said Washington's insistence on keeping its forces in Syria is a "flagrant aggression."

The U.S. said it will maintain its presence in Syria to fight the Islamic State group and "reinforce stability in liberated areas." There are now about 1,500 U.S. troops in Syria that initially came to train and support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the anti-IS campaign.

Mroue reported from Beirut.