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UN peace envoy for Syria heading to Moscow, Washington

Geneva: The UN peace envoy to Syria said today he was heading directly to Moscow in a bid to promote a political end to the conflict, as Russia intensifies its air strikes.

“I am on my way tonight to Moscow,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva, acknowledging that the Russian air strikes in Syria had “introduced new dynamics” to the brutal conflict.

Russia says its air strikes, which began on September 30 and are coordinated with Syria’s government, are targeting the Islamic State jihadist group and other “terrorists”.

But the opposition and its backers say Moscow has focused more on moderate and Islamist rebels rather than jihadists and is trying to shore up President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

De Mistura refused to judge Russia’s action, but did stress that “in all cases, the protection of civilians should be a priority, especially when actions are performed by military forces of Security Council members.”

He pointed out that some 40,000 people had fled since the beginning of the Russian airstrikes “in fear of a further military escalation,” adding to the many millions already displaced inside Syria.

The Italian-Swedish diplomat said he would travel on to Washington, which has also been carrying out airstrikes in Syria “immediately after” his Moscow visit, as he struggles to set up so-called contact groups of countries with interests and influence in the Syria conflict that could help it move towards a political solution.

De Mistura proposed in July creating the contact groups in addition to four working groups composed of Syrian opposition and government representatives to discuss issues including protecting civilians and reconstruction.

Syria’s key opposition National Coalition said Sunday it would boycott the proposed talks, marking a major setback to his efforts.

The Coalition slammed the Russian air campaign, and has also been disappointed by the consultative nature of De Mistura’s proposal, saying the talks fall short of proper negotiations.

“I regret and however respect their decision and hope it can evolve,” De Mistura told reporters.

The Syrian government has meanwhile said it will take part in the working groups, and de Mistura said it had sent over a list of participants.

Two opposition groups outside the coalition, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, told AFP Monday they would join as well.