Warring sides trade blame in fresh Syria talks

AFP , Monday 10 Feb 2014

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Muqdad, left, talks to an aide prior to a press briefing at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Switzerland, Monday, Feb 10, 2014 (Photo: AP)

A new round of Syrian peace talks got off to a rocky start Monday, with the warring sides blaming each other for escalating violence and difficulties getting aid to the besieged city of Homs.

The UN and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi began the latest session in Geneva by shuttling between the government and opposition teams, which continued to lob blame back and forth as they did throughout the first round of talks in late January.

Brahimi seemed to have come prepared for the logjam.

In a letter in Arabic sent to the two delegations ahead of the talks, and seen by AFP, he suggested that the parties not immediately resume the joint meetings they had had in January, but wait until the second or third day, in the hope that "separate sessions can lead to some positive outcomes."

The UN mediator wants to nudge the teams towards discussion of the core issues: stopping the fighting and agreeing a transitional government in Damascus.

The so-called Geneva II talks -- spurred by the United States, which backs the opposition, and Russia, a key ally of Syria -- mark the biggest international push so far to end the war.

But with the talks at an apparent standstill, Russia on Monday proposed that Moscow and Washington hold a collective meeting with the United Nations and the two sides to try to move things forward.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said such talks could be held with the two Syrian delegations jointly or at separate meetings.

"If additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these," a US official said.

The initial Geneva II round last month marked a step forward simply by getting the government and opposition to sit down face-to-face for the first time since the outbreak of their vicious war in March 2011.

But Monday's talks immediately hit a negative tone, with little signs of any solution to the conflict that has already killed more than 136,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

The representatives from President Bashar al-Assad's regime presented a text condemning a weekend attack on the village of Maan in Syria's central Hama province by opposition Islamist brigades.

The text described the attack -- which according to monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights killed at least 21 civilians -- as an "ugly massacre" and demanded an immediate "clear condemnation from... Brahimi."

The government delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, reiterated that the negotiations must focus on stopping violence and "terrorism" -- its term for the revolt, which it says has been fuelled by foreign jihadists and Gulf money.

Opposition negotiators, headed by Hadi al-Bahra, meanwhile kicked off their meeting by presenting a report about the regime's "violence, crimes against humanity and state terrorism", a delegation source said.

Opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters the focus of the talks would be on "stopping violence, starting with the regime violence."

The opposition insists that the only way to put an end to the bloodshed is to put in place a transitional government.

But while the opposition sees a transitional governing body as excluding any role for Assad, the Syrian government insists that the president's future is not up for negotiation.

"This issue is not on the agenda," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Muqdad told reporters.

"The Syrian delegation will not back down an inch" on its insistence to discuss terrorism first, he said, stressing though that regime representatives would "stay even if all the others quit."

The opposition has also vowed to stay the course.

Safi meanwhile said Brahimi's decision to begin with separate meetings should be seen a rebuke to the regime's constant harking on the "terrorism" issue in the last round.

"While they were talking about issues irrelevant to our discussion, Syrians were dying in Homs, Aleppo, in the suburbs of Damascus, so he's trying now to see whether he can get some sense out of that team," he said.

On the ground, the only tangible agreement reached during the first round of talks last month was still being implemented Monday with aid convoys evacuating the besieged city of Homs.

The ceasefire permitting the Homs operation proved fragile on Saturday, with the first aid convoy coming under attack and mortar shells raining down on a rebel-held district on Sunday, killing five people. Red Crescent teams on Sunday managed nevertheless to evacuate some 600 people.

Some 300 more people were evacuated Monday, the Syrian Red Crescent said.

Activists have blamed pro-regime militia in neighbourhoods bordering the besieged districts for the attacks, while Syrian state television said "armed terrorist groups" had fired during the evacuations.

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