The Latest: Syria unveils new Hama statue to Assad's father

BEIRUT — The Latest on developments in Syria (all times local):

6:40 p.m.

Syria's state news agency says authorities have unveiled a statue of late President Hafez Assad in the city of Hama to replace the one pulled down by demonstrators nearly six years ago, in the early days of the uprising against his son's rule.

SANA says the statue was unveiled on Monday in the same spot where the earlier one stood.

Hafez Assad ruled Syria for 30 years before parliament passed power to his son, in 2000. He besieged Hama in response to a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. An estimated 10,000 - 40,000 people were killed at the time.

His son, President Bashar Assad, has battled a six-year insurgency against his rule that started as an Arab Spring uprising but quickly descended into an all-out civil war.

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5 p.m.

The office of the U.N. envoy for Syria says the "formal start" of a new round of U.N.-brokered peace talks for the war-torn country is expected on Feb. 23.

Staffan de Mistura's office says he is "actively engaged" in diplomatic efforts aimed to bring Syrian government and opposition delegations back to Geneva for the first time since the talks were suspended amid an upsurge in fighting last April.

De Mistura had previously said the talks were expected to resume on Feb. 20. But his office says delegations are expected to arrive "on or about Feb. 20" to enable "prior consultations" with him and his team.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, de Mistura's spokeswoman Yara Sharif confirmed that letters had been sent to participants on Monday, and consultations were continuing.

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3:30 p.m.

The U.N. envoy for Syria has begun sending out formal invitations to the participants for the upcoming peace talks in Geneva, the first U.N.-mediated negotiations among Syria's warring sides in nearly 10 months.

The talks are to resume next Monday. They were last held in April but were suspended amid new fighting that broke out. Militant groups such as the Islamic State group and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, Fatah al-Sham, are excluded from any peace negotiations or cease-fire deals in Syria.

Unlike rounds last year involving many Syrian groups, these talks will involve only two official delegations — the representatives of the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition.

Yara Sharif, spokeswoman for U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, told The Associated Press that an unspecified number of invitations have been sent out on Monday to confirm the participation by both sides.

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1 p.m.

The Russian defense ministry says Syrian government forces are advancing toward the ancient city of Palmyra.

Palmyra, home to a UNESCO Heritage site, was recaptured by the Islamic State group in December, nine months after a Russia-backed offensive drove out the militants.

Russia's defense ministry said in an statement on Monday Syrian government troops are about 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the city and that Russia's Air Force last week performed more than 90 flights to provide air cover for the offensive.

The defense ministry earlier on Monday released drone footage, showing a central section of Palmyra's famous theater lying in ruins after IS militants supposedly blew it up.

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11:20 a.m.

The Syrian government says it is ready to release prisoners it is holding in exchange for civilians or troops held by insurgents.

Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed official as saying the offer comes ahead of a peace conference scheduled to take place later this month.

Monday's announcement comes a week after the Syrian government and rebels exchanged dozens of people including women and children who were held by insurgents for years.

The unnamed Syrian official said the offer comes ahead of a two-day meeting later this week in the Kazakh capital of Astana.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry has invited government and opposition officials and delegates from Russia, Turkey, and Iran for preparatory talks in Astana on Thursday and Friday ahead of further talks in Geneva later.

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11:15 a.m.

Russia's defense ministry has released drone footage showing new damage to Palmyra's archaeological site in Syria.

The Islamic State group recaptured the ancient town in December from government troops, nine months after they were expelled in a Russia-backed offensive. Moscow last week said Syrian government forces were advancing toward Palmyra thanks to Russian air cover.

Drone footage released on Monday that the defense ministry said was filmed earlier this month showed a central section of Palmyra's famous theater lying in ruins.

The ministry said their drones also recorded significant truck movements in the area around the archaeological site, which it said could mean that the IS militants are delivering explosives to the site and want to cause more destruction to it.

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