Geneva II: Syrian foes to discuss prisoner releases
Published Sunday, January 26, 2014
Updated at 1:30pm: Syria's government and opposition resumed face-to-face talks on Sunday expected to tackle humanitarian issues including opposition calls for Damascus to release women and child prisoners.
The talks resumed at 11:00 am with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi acting as a go-between, after the two warring sides sat together in the same room for the first time on Saturday.
In what Brahimi said was a "good beginning", their first discussions centered on sending aid to besieged residents in the embattled city of Homs.
Brahimi said he hoped a deal could be reached on sending aid convoys on Sunday or Monday to Homs, where hundreds of families in the Old City are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
"If we achieve success on Homs we hope that this will be the beginning," Brahimi said.
Brahimi has said the two days of weekend talks will focus on what he has called confidence building measures, aimed at establishing a positive atmosphere before more difficult political talks on Monday.
Government delegates arriving for the talks on Sunday said they were ready to discuss all issues presented by Brahimi but that it was a mistake to focus on individual or local issues.
"They proposed Homs. We say all Syrian cities are equal and as important," Information Minister Omran Zoabi told reporters.
Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad and member of the government delegation, echoed his reservations.
"The other side came here to discuss a small problem here or there. We came to discuss the future of Syria," she said. "We did not come here to bring relief to a region here or a region there. We came here to restore safety and security to our country."
Despite the failure to agree on any concrete proposals, Saturday still marked progress after President Bashar al-Assad's government on Friday accused the opposition of obstructing the negotiations and threatened to walk away.
Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides are meeting in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem Syria's bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war.
The opposition insists the talks should focus on Assad leaving power and the formation of a transitional government based on an agreement reached during a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.
The regime says Assad's role is not up for debate at this conference - dubbed Geneva II - and denies that the initial Geneva deal requires him to go.
Expectations are very low for a serious breakthrough at the talks, which are expected to last about a week, but diplomats have said simply bringing the two sides together for the first time was an important step.
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators are focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localized ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.
Erupting after the government cracked down on protests in 2011, Syria's civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)