Syria violence overshadows Russia-hosted talks

KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Intense clashes erupted today on a strategic hilltop in northwestern Syria as Kurdish forces tried to enter the area a day after it was captured by Turkish troops.

Turkish military officials canceled a government-organized press tour to Bursayah Hill, separating the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, due to what they described as "security concerns."

Separately, in the nearby rebel-held province of Idlib, suspected Syrian government airstrikes killed at least 21 people and put a hospital out of order.

The violence has overshadowed a peace conference hosted by Russia that was due to open in Sochi today. Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad, says it invited 1,600 representatives to the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue, but so far only the government and opposition representatives tolerated by it have shown up. The main Syrian opposition body has boycotted the talks.

The main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is fighting in Afrin and controls some 25 percent of Syrian territory, has also declined to attend, saying it holds Russia responsible for the Turkish offensive.

Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia's envoy for Syria, downplayed the violence, saying the situation in Afrin has "somehow stabilized" and expressing hope that "potential provocations prior to and during the event won't affect its outcome."

"We still hope that common sense will prevail and that the leadership of the united Syrian opposition will still decide to attend the congress. This possibility has not been ruled out, and the invitations remain on the table," he said, according to Russian state agency Tass.

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