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Sights set for modest achievements in Syria talks

Syria’s main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Nasr al-Hariri, informs the media after the round of negotiation with the UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria Staffan de Mistura at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

GENEVA (AP) — Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round of Syria talks in Geneva, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

Meanwhile, fighting continued Thursday near Palmyra in central Syria.

U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is due for another round of meetings Thursday marking a week of bilateral talks with the government delegation and opposition groups.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.” After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he said.

Russia is a key sponsor of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus.

A top Syrian opposition negotiator told journalists overnight Wednesday the U.N. envoy is “really keen to start a political process on the basis of a clear agenda.”

Nasr al-Hariri said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics.

In Syria on Thursday, government forces pressed their advantage against Islamic State militants inside Palmyra, taking up positions overlooking the historic town in preparation for a final push to retake it from the group, state media reported.

SANA news agency reported the military had seized the Palmyra citadel on a hilltop about a mile away from the town’s famed archaeological site.

The offensive has depended on support from Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets.

The Islamic State group seized Palmyra in December, months after being driven out by Russian-backed Syrian forces.

The town, according to Mohammed Homsi, the director of the activist-run Palmyra News Network, is almost entirely deserted. Islamic State fighters evacuated the last of their relatives on Sunday.

In Germany, authorities arrested a Syrian national on suspicion of murdering dozens of civil servants in Syria in 2013. They said the suspect could stand trial for war crimes.

The authorities arrested an associate of the man, as well. They said the two men belonged to an al-Qaida-linked faction that was fighting against the Syrian government.