With UN envoy in Damascus, IS takes Syria town

By Albert Aji and Bassem Mroue, AP

DAMASCUS, Syria–The U.N. special envoy on Monday urged Syria’s warring sides to preserve the fragile U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire ahead of the next round of peace talks in Geneva this week.

The plea by Staffan de Mistura, who spoke after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem in Damascus, came as Islamic State fighters retook a northern town along the border with Turkey from Syrian rebels and government forces and rebels clashed across northern and western Syria.

Opposition activists also reported clashes and government air raids near the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub.

The fighting has endangered the U.S.-Russia-engineered truce that has mostly held since the end of February. Al-Qaida’s branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group are excluded from the cease-fire, which had brought relative calm to much of Syria.

De Mistura said the next round of peace talks, due to begin Wednesday in Geneva, will focus on a political transition for Syria, where the civil war, now in its sixth year, has killed 250,000 and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. About 4 million have fled the country.

In northern Syria, Islamic State fighters took control of the town of al-Rai, just days after losing it to the rebels, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Today TV station.

The Observatory and the TV said IS captured al-Rai early Monday morning after intense fighting. The town is strategically located on the border with Turkey, serving as the Islamic State’s access point to supply lines. It also sits along the road to the IS stronghold in Aleppo province.