Syrian delegation threatens to quit Geneva

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Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad speaks to journalists at the "Geneva II" peace talks on January 24, 2014 at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. (Photo: AFP - Fabrice Coffrini)

Published Friday, January 24, 2014

Updated 2:15 pm: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem threatened to pull his delegation from the Geneva II peace talks if no serious sessions were held by Saturday.

"If no serious work sessions are held by (Saturday), the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva due to the other side's lack of seriousness or preparedness," state television quoted Moallem as saying, citing a United Nations source.

His comments came on Friday after the Syrian opposition refused to meet the Syrian government delegation unless it first signs up to a protocol calling for a transitional government.

Plans were ditched at the last minute for the two sides to sit down to talk face to face for the first time. Instead, they would each meet separately with a UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told reporters the opposition was obstructing the talks.

"The problem is that these people do not want to make peace; they are coming here with pre-conditions," he told reporters.

"Of course we are ready to sit in the same room. Why are we coming here then," he asked.

The closed-door discussions were due to begin on Friday, two days after a formal opening conference was held in a poisonous atmosphere, with both sides and their global backers making uncompromising public speeches.

Any direct meeting appears unlikely for now.

The opposition says it has come to discuss a transition that will remove Assad from power. The government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism, and no one can force Assad to go.

Opposition delegates decided they would not meet the government delegation unless it endorsed "Geneva I," a 2012 protocol that calls for a political transition.

"We have explicitly demanded a written commitment from the regime delegation to accept Geneva I. Otherwise there will be no direct negotiations," opposition delegate Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters.

Syria's Information Minister Omran Zoabi rejected the demand for the establishment of a transitional governing body.

"No, we will not accept it," Zoabi told Reuters on Friday.

But UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told reporters that Brahimi would instead meet with the Syrian government delegation at 11:00 am (1000 GMT) and then the opposition at 4:00 pm.

"Both meetings will be bilateral," she said.

"You have to understand that the peace process is being shaped at the moment. You have to be patient," Vellucci said, when pressed by reporters for details of the talks.

"This process is shaping up, so there have been changes to previous declarations," she said. "We are going step by step."

Brahimi has indicated that his aim is to start by seeking practical steps, like local ceasefires, prisoner releases and access for international aid deliveries, before embarking on the tougher political negotiations.

Among the hurdles to progress, the Islamist militants who control most rebel-held territory are boycotting the talks and say anyone attending negotiations that fail to bring down Assad would be traitors.

During Wednesday's opening ceremony, the government delegation drew a rebuke from Ban for using inflammatory language after referring in a speech to rebels raping dead women, ripping fetuses from the womb and eating human organs.

In a defiant speech on Thursday, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said the international community had concluded that Assad cannot stay in power.

"We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now. Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead," Jarba said.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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