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Syria-based groups say talks may be 'last chance'

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DIAA HADID | November 11, 2013 11:58 AM EST | AP

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BEIRUT (AP) — An international peace conference proposed by the United States and Russia may be the last chance to negotiate an end to Syria's civil war, a coalition of Syria-based opposition groups said Monday.

The call came as Syrian government forces consolidated control over yet another northern town, part of a steadily advancing offensive that has reversed rebel gains in recent weeks.

"This is the only available framework and might be the last chance to resolve the crisis in Syria," the Coalition of Forces for Peaceful Change said in a statement. Earlier in the day, Syria's main Western-backed opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, said it too supported the Geneva talks and intended to attend them later this year.

Neither of the groups, however, have much influence over the disparate armed factions fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. The Syria-based opposition ranges from officials close to the government, to intellectuals and parties that have opposed Assad's Baath party for decades. The exiled group ranges from secular intellectuals to Islamic activists.

In its statement Monday, however, the exiled Coalition said it would only attend the Geneva talks if humanitarian aid is allowed to reach besieged areas and the government releases political prisoners. The group itself wants any future transitional government to exclude Assad and his close allies — a demand the Syrian government has rejected.

The proposed Geneva conference faces a series of obstacles: the most powerful and best-armed rebel groups aren't party to the talks, and most fighting units are disorganized bands with little central command or leadership. Even if an agreement is reached in Geneva, it is unclear if it will be accepted on the ground.

As diplomats try have been trying to convene peace talks, the fighting on the ground has raged on.

In their latest blow to rebel fighters, government forces took the town of Tel Aran and a series of other positions in the northern province of Aleppo, state media said, a day after they consolidated their control of a key military base held by rebels since February. The British-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which receives its information from a network of activists on the ground, also reported the government advances.

The Observatory and an Aleppo activist said they believed the government's gains were partly caused by rebel infighting. The al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in particular, they said, was trying to drive weaker opposition groups from rebel-held areas.

On Monday, for example, ISIL fighters attacked another rebel group on a mountainous hillside in the coastal province of Latakia, the Observatory and the activist said.

"We are afraid of ISIL more than the regime," said the activist, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

"The ISIL is not fighting the regime. It is seeking to expand, it is trying to seize the liberated areas and announce its Islamic rule," he said, adding that infighting had grown steadily over the past three months.

Also Monday, Syria's state news agency said a mortar shell hit a school bus in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood of central Damascus, killing four children and the bus driver. It said four children and two teachers were also wounded.

The Observatory also put the death toll at five.

Also Monday, Human Rights Watch said it had documented 56 attacks by the Syrian air force using incendiary weapons since November 2012, and called on the Damascus government to immediately stop using the munitions.

"Syria has used incendiary weapons to inflict terrible harm on civilians, including many children," said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at HRW. "Yet where is the international outcry? Other countries should condemn Syria's use of incendiary weapons just as they have its use of chemical weapons and cluster bombs."

The New York-based group said most of the evidence it collected indicates that warplanes and helicopters operated by the Syrian Air Force are being used to deliver incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire and cause massive burns on victims.

HRW said its conclusions are based on field research, witness accounts, videos and photos.

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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Ryan Lucas in Beirut and Desmond Butler in Istanbul contributed to this report.