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Russia agrees US to attend Syria talks as ceasefire tested

Russia has agreed the United States should be involved in talks on Syria’s future planned for this month, Turkey’s top diplomat said, as a series of explosions rocked Damascus.

Moscow and Ankara last month brokered a fragile ceasefire for the war-torn country, but without the involvement of Washington, a negotiator in previous agreements.

“The United States should be definitely invited, and that is what we agreed with Russia,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists in Geneva on Thursday after an international conference on Cyprus.

The talks in Astana are expected to take place on January 23.

The truce — which does not include Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Al-Nusra Front, or the Islamic State group — has brought quiet to large parts of the country, but violence has continued in some areas.

On Thursday a suicide bomber killed at least eight people in a rare attack on a high-security district of Damascus, a monitor said, while a series of explosions later ripped through a military airport on the western outskirts of the city.

“Eight people died when a suicide bomber targeted Kafr Sousa” in the southwest of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“At least four of them were soldiers, including a colonel,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

State news agency SANA said at least seven people were killed when a “suicide terrorist” detonated an explosive belt close to a sports club there.

Footage from the scene of the attack broadcast on state television showed what appeared to be blast marks and blood splattered across a wall next to the wreckage of a car.

Such attacks are rare in Damascus, a stronghold of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad which has been fighting rebels in Syria for nearly six years.

Later an AFP correspondent heard several explosions and saw a large fire inside the Mazzeh military airport, with smoke visible across the capital.

State news agency SANA said the facility had been bombed and that ambulances were rushing towards the scene.

Syrian sources have reported several Israeli air strikes in the course of the civil war, including in the Mazzeh area. The Israeli army had no comment on the report when contacted by AFP.

– Water crisis in Damascus –

Ankara in December sought to sideline the US by hosting weeks of secret talks between Russian representatives and the Syrian opposition, in a bid to ensure Turkey had a say in its neighbour’s postwar future.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the ceasefire agreement that followed as a “historic opportunity”, but the US State Department was more circumspect, calling it “a positive development”.

Russia and Turkey on Thursday also agreed to coordinate attacks on “terrorist targets” in Syria, Moscow’s defence ministry said, following a meeting on cooperation in the fight against Islamic State jihadists.

Meanwhile talks were taking place in Moscow and Ankara to help end the water crisis affecting millions in Damascus, the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said.

Fighting in the Wadi Barada region near Syria’s capital has damaged water infrastructure and left some 5.5 million people in the capital and its suburbs facing shortages, according to the UN.

Syria’s government accuses rebels in Wadi Barada of deliberately cutting water to the capital, but the rebels say regime strikes damaged pumping facilities.

Violent clashes were underway there Thursday between regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah group and rebel forces, the Observatory said.

On Thursday the US also announced sanctions against 18 senior Syrian military officers and officials over the use of chemical weapons against three villages in northern Syria in 2014 and 2015.