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EU official optimistic about Syria's political process
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BEIRUT (AP) — The European Union's foreign policy chief on Monday expressed cautious optimism about Syria's peace process, urging international and regional actors to build on the current, favorable conditions even as fighting raged between rival militant groups in southern Syria.

In Geneva, where ongoing proximity peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition had adjourned over the weekend, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura was to meet with the two sides separately.

On a visit to Beirut, the EU's Federica Mogherini said recent developments — including a cease-fire that has been largely holding across Syria since Feb. 27 and the delivery of aid to besieged areas — reflect "positive" steps unseen in the previous five years of conflict.

Mogherini met with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil and Prime Minister Tammam Salam and discussed the issue of Syrian refugees and the attacks by the Islamic State group in Lebanon and in Paris last November. She also went to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley to meet Syrian refugees who are among hundreds of thousands who have fled to Lebanon.

Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, has given refuge to more than 1 million Syrian refugees.

"Today, we have something that not only last year but all the previous five years we did not have," she said about the peace process. "We have today conditions that were never in place before."

She stressed that Syrians and their international and regional backers have to build on the positive steps.

"Obviously, (it's) something fragile and we all have to focus very much on protecting the steps that have been taken, making sure that they consolidate and that they also go far," Mogherini said.

Later, visiting a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Bar Elias, Mogherini said the priority is to end the war so that refugees can return home.

"Not because of the difficulties of welcoming or protecting or guaranteeing education or jobs for the Syrian refugees, but because they deserve their life back, they deserve to go home. As they just told me, 'We want to go home.'"

Asked to comment on the European Union's deal to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey, she said that "priority number one is to bring them back to Syria" and achieve a diplomatic solution. "Then we can talk about all the rest."

In Syria, meanwhile, a militant faction loyal to the Islamic State group — the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade — attacked and captured the southern Syrian village of Tseel after clashes with rival groups, including al-Qaida's branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front.

Also Monday, Syrian state TV showed President Bashar Assad hosting wounded Syrian soldiers in a reception hall with his wife, Asmaa. The war has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced half the country's prewar population of 23 million.

Elsewhere, the Cairo-based Arab League rejected last week's declaration by Syrian Kurds of a de-facto federal region in northern Syria. The league's deputy chief, Ahmed bin Helli, said Monday that calls for federalization could threaten Syria's unity.

On Thursday, a meeting of some 200 Syrian Kurdish officials declared they were establishing a federal region, insisting they don't seek secession.

Kurdish fighters are among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State group and are backed militarily by the United States. A long oppressed minority, the Kurds took advantage of the chaos of the war to advance their goals of autonomy. After Assad's troops withdrew from Kurdish areas to focus elsewhere in Syria, they declared their own civil administration in 2013.