US denies Syrian claim of seeking direct meeting

AFP , Sunday 2 Feb 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures during the annual Munich Security Conference February 1, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

The US State Department has denied a claim by Syria's foreign minister Saturday that Washington sought direct negotiations with them at peace talks in Switzerland.

"The Americans asked us to negotiate directly with them in Montreux," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Syrian state media on the plane home from 10 days of peace talks in the Swiss cities of Montreux and Geneva.

"But we refused to do so before Secretary of State John Kerry apologised for what he said at the conference," Muallem added, in remarks carried by state news agency SANA.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied there was any attempt at direct negotiations.

The United States offered to connect with the Syrians "on a staff level" through Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi and the United Nations "because we are focused on ending the suffering of the Syrian people, and as we have throughout the conflict," Psaki said in a statement to AFP.

"At no point did the United States offer to negotiate directly with the Syrian regime and at no point will Secretary Kerry ever apologize for speaking the truth about the brutality the Assad regime has inflicted on the people of Syria," Psaki said.

Syria's government and opposition began the so-called Geneva II talks on January 22, with the participation of dozens of nations, including Russia, which backs the regime, and the United States, which supports the opposition.

In his opening remarks at the conference, Kerry said Syria's President Bashar al-Assad "will not be part" of any transitional government.

"There is no way, not possible in the imagination, that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain legitimacy to govern," Kerry said.

During 10 days of talks the regime and opposition made no progress on ceasefires, humanitarian corridors or the question of a transitional government.

The regime sought to focus the discussions on "terrorism", its term for the actions of all those seeking Assad's overthrow.

A second round of talks has been tabled for February 10, with the opposition already committed to attending.

Muallem said his team would await guidance from Damascus before announcing whether it would participate.

More than 136,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and more than 2.4 million Syrians have become refugees.

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