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Regime threatens to quit troubled Syria peace talks

Activists from 'Codepink women for peace' protest on January 24, 2014 at the entrance of the United Nations Office in Geneva
Activists from "Codepink women for peace" protest on January 24, 2014 at the entrance of the United Nations Office in Geneva

Syria's regime threatened to quit peace talks in Geneva on Friday as UN-backed efforts to bring the country's warring sides together stumbled on their first day.

Syrian state television said Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had told UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi that "should serious sessions fail to take place tomorrow, the official Syrian delegation will leave Geneva."

Muallem told Brahimi "the Syrian delegation is serious and ready to start, but the other side is not," it said.

Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, delegations from President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition had been due to sit down Friday morning at UN headquarters in Geneva.

Brahimi spent Thursday trying to convince them to be in the same room for the start of the talks -- the biggest diplomatic effort yet to stem the bloodshed in Syria's devastating civil war.

But instead he again met separately with each delegation.

"This process is shaping up, so there have been changes to previous declarations," UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told reporters. "We are going step by step."

Map showing who supports whom in the Syria conflict
Updated map showing international support for the Syrian regime and opposition

Brahimi met the regime delegation in the late morning and had begun meeting with the opposition National Coalition around 4:00 pm (1500 GMT).

Sources within the delegations told AFP the opposition had refused to sit in the same room unless the regime accepted the need for a transitional government without Assad.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad 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?"

Nazir al-Hakim, a member of the opposition delegation, told AFP it was only willing to negotiate on the basis of the agreement reached at the "Geneva I" peace conference in 2012, which called for the creation of a transitional government.

"We agree to negotiate on the application of Geneva I. The regime does not accept that," he said.

"We will be in the same room when there is a clear agenda for negotiations. We need guarantees that Geneva I will be discussed," Hakim said.

The regime rejects the opposition's contention that the Geneva I agreement requires Assad to go.

Low expectations for breakthrough

Expectations are very low for a breakthrough at the Geneva II discussions, which officials have said could last up to 10 days.

Walid Muallem (C) arrives at the UN headquarters on January 24, 2014 for the Geneva II peace talks in Geneva
Walid Muallem (C) arrives at the UN headquarters on January 24, 2014 for the Geneva II peace talks in Geneva

But diplomats believe that simply bringing the two sides together for the first time is a mark of progress and could be an important first step.

With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators will be looking for short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.

Brahimi said he "had indications" from both sides that they were willing to discuss these issues.

The opposition arrived in Switzerland with a sole aim -- toppling Assad -- while the regime says any talk of removing the Syrian leader is a "red line" it will not cross.

Prominent opposition member Burhan Ghalioun told reporters that Assad's opponents would not leave Geneva before the regime.

"We will stay the whole time. The Syrian opposition will not withdaw from this conference until the rights of the Syrian people are met," he said.

The start of the conference in the Swiss town of Montreux on Wednesday was marked by fiery exchanges, with Muallem labelling the opposition "traitors" and agents of foreign governments.

But UN leader Ban Ki-moon urged the two sides to work together, saying: "Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate."

Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria's civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

Pitting Assad's regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.

It took months of efforts to convince the two sides to come to the conference, with the opposition National Coalition only deciding at the last minute to attend.

The debate over whether to take part exposed deep divisions within the opposition, with its biggest bloc, the Syrian National Council, quitting the coalition after the decision was taken.

Questions have been raised about whether the opposition delegation is truly representative of Assad's opponents and if it would be able to implement any deal with rebel fighters on the ground.

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