The Latest: Russia says group formed to preserve Syria truce

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):

5:15 p.m.

A leader of the Russian delegation at Syrian talks in Kazakhstan says an agreement has been reached to form a permanent contact group of Russia, Turkey and Iran to "preserve and strengthen the cessation of hostilities."

Sergei Vershinin made the statement Thursday after talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, attended by Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as the Syrian government and Syrian rebels.

The meeting is intended to pave the way for the revival of broader peace talks in Geneva next week.

Sergei Afanasyev, of the Russian military's General Staff, said the parties agreed on an "exchange mechanism for forcibly held people, primarily women and children," without elaborating.

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5 p.m.

Syria's government envoy to talks in Kazakhstan has blasted Turkey for continuing to support "terrorist" groups in Syria and urged it to withdraw its troops.

Turkey, alongside Russia and Iran, is sponsoring talks between the Syrian government and armed rebel factions in the Kazakh capital, Astana. A second round of talks was held Thursday, aimed at reinforcing a cease-fire that has technically been in place since Dec. 30.

Bashar al-Ja'afari, Syria's U.N. ambassador, said at a press conference that Turkey "cannot be fanning the flames and be extinguishing them at the same time." He called on Ankara to withdraw its troops from Syria and accused the Turkish government of continuing to facilitate the entry of "tens of thousands of mercenaries" to Syria.

Turkish troops have been helping Syrian opposition forces battle the Islamic State group in northern Syria since August.

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3 p.m.

A top U.N. humanitarian aid official is calling for aid convoys to be allowed into besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria to demonstrate "goodwill" before government and opposition envoys gather for talks in Geneva next week.

Jan Egeland, of the U.N. Syria envoy's office, lamented that not a single U.N.-arranged land convoy has reached any of more than a dozen besieged towns or villages this year, citing a lack of approvals from authorities.

He said convoys were lining up Thursday in hopes of delivering aid to the opposition-held enclave of al-Waer in Homs, Syria's third-largest city.

The appeal came as the U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was meeting with top Russian officials in Moscow in the run-up to the anticipated Feb. 23 start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

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2:45 p.m.

Syrian government officials have sat face-to-face with Syrian rebels for the second time in three weeks in Astana, Kazakhstan, as diplomats step up their efforts to reconcile the two sides ahead of U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva.

Thursday's meeting is aimed at shoring up a cease-fire before the government meets with the exiled opposition as well as representatives of armed groups in Geneva on Feb. 23, for talks aimed at reaching a broader political settlement.

Rebels and pro-government forces are meanwhile clashing in the Daraa governorate in southern Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says an al-Qaida-linked faction attacked government forces Sunday, shattering an extended spell of calm in the contested region.

There have been repeated violations of the cease-fire since it went into effect on Dec. 30.

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