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Damascus (AFP) – A blast ripped through a pickup truck Wednesday in southern Syria, killing 21 people in the latest attack on civilians in the country’s raging war, adding urgency to international efforts to convene peace talks.

Washington pressed the Syrian opposition National Coalition to agree to a peace conference that would bring together dissidents and regime representatives, even as more rebel groups rejected the N.C.

A truck was passing through an area of Daraa province in southern Syria where troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are stationed when it was struck by a blast, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Twenty-one people were killed in the Nawa area (of Daraa), among them four children and six women, in a blast that detonated as their vehicle went past Tal al-Jumua,” the Britain-based Observatory said.

Activists accused regime troops of planting the explosives, the watchdog said.

Daraa is the cradle of the uprising that broke out against Assad in March 2011.

The Observatory says more than 115,000 people have been killed in the war that erupted after Assad’s troops unleashed a brutal crackdown against protesters.

Rebels fighting Assad’s troops have made significant progress in recent months in Daraa, which is strategically located on the border with Jordan and near Damascus province.

The latest deaths come as the United States presses efforts to persuade a key Syrian opposition group to drop its refusal to join planned talks in Geneva.

A stalled peace initiative dubbed Geneva 2 has been proposed by Washington and Moscow aimed at bringing rebel and regime representatives to the negotiating table.

But the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is the biggest bloc within the Syrian opposition coalition, said at the weekend it would not join the talks planned for next month and would quit the umbrella group if it attends.

The S.N.C. cited as its reasons for snubbing the talks the ongoing suffering of Syrians on the ground.

The U.S., which backs the opposition in Syria’s war, has urged the S.N.C. to drop its refusal to join the talks.

“There have been many ups and downs in this process,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday.

“But we continue to press for the opposition to have a representative body at the Geneva conference,” she added.

Geneva 2 was first talked of in May but has been postponed several times due to wrangling among the opposition and a dispute on which countries should have a place at the negotiating table.

The situation has been exacerbated by a chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs in August that left hundreds dead.

Washington led other world powers in accusing Assad’s regime of using the prohibited weapons and threatened military strikes.

While denying regime troops were behind the attack, Damascus agreed to allow international experts to destroy its massive chemical arsenal as it raced to avert a strike by U.S. forces.

Acting under a subsequent U.N. Security Council resolution, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has begun destroying the weapons in an operation expected to last until mid-2014.

The UN Resolution 2118 also called for peace talks, but the opposition has criticised it for failing to guarantee justice for the victims of Syria’s war.

Mounting criticism of National Coalition

An added challenge to the Geneva process has been mounting rebel criticism of the N.C.

On Wednesday, rebels fighting Assad’s regime in southern Syria said the Coalition had “failed” and announced they no longer recognise the group.

The video statement signed by nearly 70 groups comes after a group of key rebel groups in the north of the country announced their rejection of the NC in September.

“Having seen the failure of the political groups that claim to represent the opposition and the revolutionary groups… we leaders of the military and revolutionary groups in the southern provinces withdraw our recognition from any political group that claims to represent us,” a rebel spokesman said.

The spokesman referred specifically to “the Coalition and its leadership”.

Based outside Syria, the N.C.’s inability to secure weapons and much-needed humanitarian assistance have raised the ire of opposition activists and rebels.

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri

Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

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