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The Latest: UN envoy sets meeting with Syrian opposition

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The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian civil war (all times local):

1:40 p.m.

The U.N. envoy for Syria will host a delegation from the main opposition group as indirect peace talks involving envoys from President Bashar Assad’s government resume in Geneva.

Staffan de Mistura and members of opposition High Negotiations Committee were to speak to reporters after Wednesday’s start of the third round of talks that began in February but have been suspended twice for breaks.

A government delegation is expected to arrive in coming days for the “proximity talks” in which the two sides meet separately with de Mistura, but with no face-to-face meeting between delegations.

Assad’s government was holding parliamentary elections Wednesday in government-controlled areas of Syria. Critics insist the elections are illegitimate largely because the five-year war has driven millions of Syrians from their homes, leaving them unable to vote.

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1:15 p.m.

Russia’s foreign minister says Syria’s parliamentary elections are needed to shore up its existing state structures until peace talks pave way for a new vote.

Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday’s elections are necessary to prevent a “vacuum of power” in Syria. He added that the peace talks set to restart in Geneva this week should lead to an agreement on the country’s new constitution and new elections.

Russia has been a crucial ally of President Bashar Assad’s government throughout the five-year civil war and launched an air campaign against insurgents last year.

Western leaders and members of the Syrian opposition have denounced the elections, which are only being held in government-controlled areas, as a sham and a provocation that undermines the Geneva peace talks.

Polling stations have been set up in 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces, excluding the northern province of Raqqa, controlled by the Islamic State group, and the northwestern province of Idlib, controlled by the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and other insurgent groups.

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1 p.m.

Britain says the Syrian government’s decision to hold elections in the war-divided country shows “how divorced it is from reality.”

The U.K. government said in a statement that Wednesday’s elections conducted by President Bashar Assad’s government are not in line with a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for elections in Syria after an 18-month transitional process.

The statement said the elections “cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy.”

It noted that hundreds of thousands of people live in besieged towns and cities, and millions have fled their homes — many into exile — and thus cannot vote.

Britain also urged “the regime’s backers, especially Russia” to pressure Syria’s government to engage in discussion about political transition in U.N.-sponsored peace talks resuming Wednesday in Geneva.

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10:45 a.m.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad has voted in parliamentary elections being held in government-controlled parts of the country.

The presidency’s Facebook page said Assad and his wife Asma cast their ballots at the Assad Library in Damascus on Wednesday. He did not make any comments.

Parliamentary elections in Syria are held every four years, and Damascus says the vote is constitutional and separate from peace talks in Geneva.

Members of the opposition have denounced the process, which is taking place amid a raging civil war, and have called for a boycott.

Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out. Polls close at 7 p.m. but could remain open longer if turnout is high. Results are expected Thursday.

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10:15 a.m.

A Turkish news agency says shells fired from Syria have hit southern Turkey, the fourth such cross-border incident in less than a week.

The private Dogan news agency says the shells struck two areas of the city center of Kilis Wednesday morning, triggering panic. The agency said the shells landed on empty land causing no casualties. Police were dispatched to the affected area.

Turkey’s military systematically retaliates to rockets or shells that land on Turkish territory in line with its rules of engagement.

On Tuesday, Turkish artillery units fired at Islamic State group targets in Syria after a salvo of rockets hit the center of Kilis, killing one person and wounding seven others.

The wider province of Kilis borders areas in Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State group, Syrian Kurdish militia or anti-government Syrian rebels.

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9:30 a.m.

Polling stations have opened in government-held parts of Syria for the election of a new 250-member parliament.

Shortly after the stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) Wednesday people began turning up. Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out.

Damascus says the vote, which will only be held in areas controlled by the government, is constitutional and separate from the peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the war.

But the opposition says it contributes to an unfavorable climate for negotiations amid fierce fighting that threatens an increasingly tenuous cease-fire engineered by the United States and Russia.

Western leaders and members of the opposition have denounced the process as a sham and a provocation that undermines the Geneva peace talks.

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