BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on Syria developments (all times local):
Russia is holding a press conference in the Netherlands with purported witnesses from Syria in an attempt to disprove an alleged chemical weapons attack took place in Syria.
A Russian diplomat, Alexander Shulgin, says the aim of the briefing is to present "evidence" that allegations of a chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7 are "completely null and void."
He says that Russia "can prove that the footage of the White Helmets is a crude staged action." He was referring to the Syrian rescue group.
Shulgin is Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands and representative to the global chemical weapons watchdog.
Russia has organized the briefing on Thursday at the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons with about 15 Syrians, including at least three young children.
The United States, France and Britain denounced and boycotted the meeting. They have blamed Syria for the suspected chemical attack in Douma and launched airstrikes a week later.
High-level officials from France, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Germany are to meet in Paris to hold talks on Syria.
France's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will meet later on Thursday some of his counterparts and other top officials to try reactivate a new round of diplomatic efforts.
The meeting comes on the same day that an international conference gathering more than 70 countries in Paris focuses on combating terror financing.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said France wants to take a new initiative to help finding a sustainable political solution in Syria, following airstrikes on three chemical-weapons facilities in Syria in a joint operation with the U.S. and Britain earlier this month.
France notably offered to play the role of intermediary between the United States and Russia.
A group of Syrians has arrived at the headquarters of the global chemical weapons watchdog in the Netherlands, where Russia has organized a briefing for them.
Russia has said the Syrians will explain that they were "real witnesses of (a) staged 'chemical attack'" in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7.
About 15 Syrians, including at least three young children, arrived at The Hague headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in a coach before being ushered inside.
They are due to attend a press conference later.
The United States, France and Britain boycotted the meeting. They have blamed Syria for the suspected chemical attack in Douma and launched airstrikes a week later.
British Ambassador Peter Wilson has accused Russia of undermining the OPCW's work in "investigating chemical weapons' use in Syria."
Lebanon's foreign minister has criticized the U.N. refugee agency, saying it's warning Syrian refugees in Lebanon not to return to their war-torn country.
Gibran Bassil told reporters after a Cabinet meeting on Thursday that large parts of Syria are now safe, which makes it easier for many Syrian refugees in Lebanon to return home.
Lebanon is home to some 1.2 million refugees, accounting for nearly a quarter of its population.
Bassil said that the "international community should stop encouraging Syrians to stay in Lebanon and not return to Syria."
His comments came a day after international donors pledged an estimated $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighbors sheltering its refugees in 2018, falling significantly short of the more than $7 billion the United Nations is seeking.
Britain and France are denouncing as a stunt and an "obscene masquerade" a move by Russia to produce Syrian witnesses who Russia says were filmed in "staged videos" in the aftermath of a reported chemical weapons attack.
Thursday's briefing at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is seen as an effort by Russia to discredit widespread reports of an April 7 chemical weapon attack in the town of Douma that killed more than 40 people and was blamed by the West on President Bashar Assad's government. Syria and Russia deny the claims.
French Ambassador Philippe Lalliot says: "This obscene masquerade does not come as a surprise from the Syrian government, which has massacred and gassed its own people for the last seven years."
Britain's ambassador, Peter Wilson, says he and other Western allies will not attend the briefing.
Syrian state media is reporting that government forces have pushed into a Damascus neighborhood held by the Islamic State group from different directions and captured buildings on several street blocks and tunnels used by the extremists.
State news agency SANA said Thursday that dozens of IS fighters were killed in battles in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad during which ground forces closely coordinated with the air force in bombarding the area.
The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian authorities ordered rebel groups in the southern Damascus suburbs of Babila, Beit Sahm and Yalda to hand over fronts lines with IS in the area or face government bombardment.
The Observatory said the government wants to open new fronts against IS to expand pressure on the extremists.