France demands end to Syrian regime's siege of villages

PARIS - French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius Monday called on the Syrian regime to end the siege of rebel-held Madaya and said a halt to air strikes by the regime and its Russian ally was an "absolute necessity".

Speaking two weeks ahead of possible UN-brokered peace talks, Fabius said it was an "absolute necessity for Syria and Russia to stop their military operations against civilian populations, and in particular that the ordeal facing Madaya and all the besieged Syrian villages come to an end." At least 28 people have reportedly starved to death since December 1 in Madaya, a town of 42,000 northwest of Damascus that is blockaded by the regime.

Deliveries of food, medicine and blankets began Monday to Madaya, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

The approximately 20,000 inhabitants of Foua and Kafraya in northwestern Idlib province are also set to receive emergency aid.

Russia, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began a campaign of air strikes in support of the regime in late September.

Moscow says it is targeting the Islamic State group and other "terrorists" and has dismissed reports that its raids have killed hundreds of civilians as "absurd".

"I solemnly call for the lifting of the sieges and the halt of indiscriminate attacks on civilians," Fabius said during his New Year's greeting to journalists.

Fabius met earlier Monday with the coordinator of the Syrian opposition, former prime minister Riad Hijab, and was to meet later in the day with the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Negotiations between Syria's opposition and the regime are set to begin on January 25 in Geneva to seek an end to a conflict that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives since it began nearly five years ago.

"Yes, there will be negotiations, and the sooner the better," Fabius said, while citing two conditions: "the end of air strikes and attacks" and an agenda that is "precise enough and does not leave too much doubt over the key question of who will govern".

Assad's future role is the main stumbling block in efforts to find peace in Syria.

The United States and Sunni Arab countries, most vocally Saudi Arabia, plus Turkey, all want Assad to go and have said the Russian air strikes were aimed at destroying "moderate rebels" who have been fighting the Syrian president since 2011.

Iran, however, has backed Russia'sintervention, and says only the Syrian people, not outside powers, can choose to dump Assad in elections following a ceasefire.