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The Latest: UN Syria envoy offers plan to avert Idlib crisis

By The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The Latest on Syria talks in Iran (all times local):

7:50 p.m.

The U.N. envoy for Syria says any proposal to avoid Idlib becoming "the biggest humanitarian tragedy at the end of the most horrible recent conflict in our memory" must be given a chance — and he has some ideas on how to separate "terrorists" from civilians.

Staffan De Mistura is also calling for "protected voluntary evacuation routes" for civilians if they want to leave Idlib.

He told the U.N. Security Council Friday that talk of a military offensive on Idlib "is happening at exactly the same time when there is serious talk" on moving to establish a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution and encourage the return of Syrian refugees.

De Mistura said these are incompatible.

"Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a post-war political scenario or we will see this war reach new levels of horrors."

He said that's why Friday's meeting of the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Tehran is so important and why he will be meeting with the three countries in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday — and next Friday with Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the United States.

It would be a failure of diplomacy "if with these efforts we simply saw an increase of military activities," De Mistura said.

___

5:45 p.m.

Turkey's president says his country does not have the "strength or capability" to host millions of more refugees from Idlib.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that a call for terror groups in Idlib to lay down arms was a strong message to them and would help halt refugee flows.

"We have to take joint steps to prevent the migration, we need to be successful in the fight against terrorism," Erdogan said.

"Turkey is already sheltering 3 ½ million refugees (from Syria). The population of Idlib is 3 ½ million. Turkey doesn't have the strength or capability to host 3 ½ million more," he added.

___

5:20 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says it is "unacceptable" to use civilians as a pretext to shield "terrorists" in Syria's rebel-held Idlib.

Speaking at the end of a trilateral summit with the leaders of Iran and Turkey Putin said Russia is worried about civilians in Idlib but said Russian finds it "unacceptable" when civilians are used a pretext to "shield terrorists" and target Syrian government positions.

Russia has been a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has indicated its support for Assad to regain control of Idlib which is the last remaining bastion of the opposition

___

4:35 p.m.

Turkey's president is calling for a cease-fire and an end to airstrikes amid a looming campaign for Syria's Idlib province.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the comments Friday at a trilateral meeting between Iran, Russia and Turkey in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says "we have to force the United States to leave" Syria.

Rouhani did not elaborate on the comment, which he made while speaking about Idlib. America has some 2,000 troops in Syria.

Friday's summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting the northwestern Syrian province.

Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.

___

4:15 p.m.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says the fight in Syria should continue until all extremists are "uprooted," especially in Idlib.

Rouhani made the comment Friday at a trilateral summit between Iran, Russia and Turkey held in Tehran.

The summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting the northwestern Syrian province.

Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.

___

4:10 p.m.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says America's intervention in Syria should immediately end.

Rouhani made the comment Friday at a trilateral summit between Iran, Russia and Turkey held in Tehran.

Rouhani also said that "the fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end."

___

3:40 p.m.

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey have begun a summit on Syria as a bloody offensive on Idlib province looms, despite warnings from the U.S. and others not to launch the attack.

The summit Friday between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting the northwestern Syrian province.

Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.

Iran, Russia and Turkey all have their own competing interests over Syria. All also face U.S. sanctions under the administration of President Donald Trump.

____

3:30 p.m.

Residents in Syria's northwestern Idlib province are holding mass rallies in the rebels' last bastion, protesting an imminent government offensive there and chanting against the country's ruler President Bashar Assad.

The Friday rallies came as Presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia are meeting in Tehran to discuss the war in Syria. The summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action in Idlib and its surrounding areas, home to more than 3 million people. Nearly half of the area's residents are already displaced from other parts of Syria and have refused to reconcile with the Syrian government. The area also includes opposition fighters and some of Syria's most radical groups.

"Come on, leave Bashar!" hundreds of protesters chanted in Saraqeb, a town in eastern Idlib. "We will defend our revolution."

___

2:20 p.m.

A spokesman for a Syrian rebel alliance says the least the summit in the Iranian capital can do is avert a humanitarian crisis in the last bastion for the opposition in northwestern Syria.

Naji al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation, said Friday his fighters are prepared for battle. But they expect a major humanitarian crisis, a large wave of displacement and a lot of destruction and death if a Russia-backed offensive takes place.

Idlib and surrounding areas are home to more than 3 million people, nearly half of them already displaced from other parts of Syria.

Al-Mustafa said his rebel alliance is looking to Turkey's efforts to prevent the attack and "to protect Idlib." Turkey has deployed 12 observations points and hundreds of fighters that ring Idlib, separating them from government and allied fighters, as part of a de-escalation agreement with Russia and Iran.

___

1:55 p.m.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have both arrived in Tehran for a trilateral summit on Syria.

The two presidents landed at Mehrabad International Airport.

They will attend the summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The summit may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

___

1:25 p.m.

Activists and residents say warplanes have struck areas on the southern edge of the Syrian Idlib province, the rebels' last bastion, killing one and causing loud explosions and large plumes of smoke.

The airstrikes Friday come hours before presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey meet in Tehran to discuss the war in Syria, with all eyes on a possible military offensive to retake bastion of Idlib.

Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said a series of airstrikes struck a few villages in southwest Idlib and along the borders with the adjacent Hama province, targeting insurgent posts and killing a fighter. Abdurrahman said suspected Russian warplanes carried out the airstrikes.

Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to more than 3 million people.

___

12:55 p.m.

The spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry is calling a summit on Syria between Iran, Turkey and Russia an "invaluable opportunity."

Bahram Ghasemi wrote an opinion piece published across Iranian media on Friday that the summit in Tehran helps as all the nations "have faced similar challenges and joint threats by bullying foreign powers."

Ghasemi wrote: "The summit has double significance since all the three nations have faced ambitions and greediness of an illogical international big power." That refers to the United States, which has some 2,000 troops in Syria after its war against the Islamic State group.

The summit Friday between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action ahead of an anticipated offensive targeting Syria's northwestern Idlib province.

___

9:55 a.m.

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey will meet in Tehran to discuss the war in Syria, with all eyes on a possible military offensive to retake the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib.

The summit Friday, the third between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may determine whether diplomacy halts any military action.

Northwestern Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.

Iran, Russia and Turkey all have their own competing interests over Syria. All also face U.S. sanctions under the administration of President Donald Trump.

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