Syrian government sits face-to-face with rebels in Astana

Syrian government officials have sat face-to-face with Syrian rebels for the second time in three weeks in Astana, Kazakhstan, as diplomats step up their efforts to reconcile the two sides ahead of U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva.

Thursday's meeting is aimed at shoring up a cease-fire before the government meets with the exiled opposition as well as representatives of armed groups in Geneva on Feb. 23, for talks aimed at reaching a broader political settlement.

Rebels and pro-government forces are meanwhile clashing in the Daraa governorate in southern Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says an al-Qaida-linked faction attacked government forces Sunday, shattering an extended spell of calm in the contested region.

There have been repeated violations of the cease-fire since it went into effect on Dec. 30.