BEIRUT – The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):
The U.N. Syria envoy has kicked off the formal start of the fifth round of peace talks over 14 months between envoys from President Bashar Assad's government and opposition groups, amid slim hopes for an immediate breakthrough.
The envoy, Staffan de Mistura, hosted Syrian ambassador Bashar al-Ja'afari at U.N. offices in Geneva for the talks set to take place over at least several days around issues of governance, elections, a new constitution, and the fight against terrorism.
De Mistura was set to meet with the main opposition delegation later Friday. The talks come amid a recent escalation in fighting in Syria, notably in and around Damascus.
The two sides are still not meeting face-to-face, despite jointly attending a fourth-round ceremony last month in a U.N. assembly hall.
France's defense minister says the battle by international forces to take back the Islamic State group's de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria will start in the coming days.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Raqqa is a "major objective" for the U.S.-led coalition trying to quash IS extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Le Drian spoke on CNEWS television on Friday.
He says: "Today we can say that Raqqa is encircled and that the battle will begin in the coming days. It will be a very hard battle but it will be an essential battle."
As the coalition advances in its battle to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul in Iraq, the U.S. has been intensifying involvement in Syria's conflict ahead of the battle for Raqqa.