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Syria foes say Geneva talks 'positive'

AFP , Wednesday 29 Jan 2014
Geneva
Louay Safi, left, spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main political opposition group, answers journalists questions at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014 (Photo: AP)
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Syria's warring sides said Wednesday peace talks in Geneva had taken a positive turn, but there were still deep divisions on what the focus of the negotiations should be.

Delegations from President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition National Coalition both said a fifth day of talks had gotten off to a "positive" start.

They said the discussion finally focused on the Geneva I communique -- the never-implemented roadmap to peace put out by global powers during talks here in 2012 -- but appeared to disagree about what aspects of the text they had discussed.

"Today we had a positive step forward because for the first time now we are talking about the transitional governing body, to end dictatorship and end the fighting and the misery in Syria," opposition delegation spokesman Louay Safi told reporters.

The opposition maintains that creating the transitional government called for in the Geneva I communique must be the first step towards a political solution, and insists implementing the document requires Assad to leave power.

The regime denies the text requires Assad to step down and says his role is not up for debate at this conference.

Regime delegation member Buthaina Shaaban confirmed that talks on the Geneva communique had begun Wednesday and had been "positive", but said this was "because they spoke about terrorism."

She stressed that the first item in the Geneva text is related to ending the violence in Syria, something the regime largely equates to rooting out the "terrorism" it claims the opposition and its foreign backers are supporting.

"We want to discuss Geneva I item by item, starting from the first item... They want to jump to the item that speaks about the transitional government," Shaaban said, accusing the opposition of only being interested in grabbing power.

Despite their disagreement about the topic of discussion, the positive tone marked a shift after two days of total deadlock.

The two sides, which were set for separate meetings Wednesday afternoon, have been brought together in Geneva in the biggest diplomatic push yet to end a civil war that has left more than 130,000 dead and forced millions from their homes.

Expectations are low for a breakthrough, especially after the talks hit an impasse Monday when UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi failed to get the two sides to agree on even the basic principles of political talks.

Then talks fell apart Tuesday after the regime delegation urged participants to adopt a statement condemning Washington for supporting "terrorists" in Syria by backing rebel groups.

Brahimi, who amid the stalemate cancelled an afternoon meeting, stressed though to reporters Tuesday evening that neither side was ready to quit the talks, which are expected to last until Friday.

"Nobody is walking out, nobody is running away," Brahimi told reporters on Tuesday. "We have not achieved any breakthrough, but we are still at it, and this is good enough as far as I'm concerned."

No progress was meanwhile apparent Wednesday towards fulfilling the only tangible promise of the talks so far: Brahimi's announcement Sunday the regime had agreed to allow women and children safe passage from besieged rebel-held areas of Homs.

The Old City of Homs has been under siege since June 2012 after rebels there rose against the regime, with an estimated 500 families living with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.

UN bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have said they are on standby with aid but are waiting for approval to move in.

"The convoy is ready and still waiting to enter. The authorisation has not been given yet," Brahimi said Tuesday. "We haven't given up on that."

Shaaban said the regime had not denied access to the areas, reiterating the government's line that "it is those (opposition) armed gangs who refuse to allow civilians to go out because they take them as human shields."

It took months of pressure from Washington, which backs the opposition, and Moscow, Assad's key international ally and arms supplier, to bring the two sides together.

Their efforts also secured a landmark deal last year to remove and destroy Syria's chemical aresenal.

But in yet another reminder of the urgency of bringing Syria's bloody civil war to an end, US intelligence chief James Clapper said Wednesday that Damascus may now be capable of producing biological weapons.

Syria's opposition said meanwhile it planned to hold talks with Russian officials in Moscow, but had still to confirm dates.

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