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Talks intensify amid push for Assad ousting

27 January 2014, 09:21

Geneva - A Syrian peace conference in Geneva is expected to intensify on Monday as talks turn to political questions and the opposition presses for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

The government has ruled out discussions of Assad leaving power and the first two days of the UN-sponsored talks focused on humanitarian issues.

In the first tangible promise to emerge from the talks, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said on Sunday the government had agreed to allow women and children safe passage from besieged rebel-held areas of the city of Homs.

But opposition spokesperson Louay Safi said the time had come "to start talking about transition from dictatorship to democracy".

On Monday, he said, "we start to see if the regime is willing to go to a political solution or stick to a military one".

Brought together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides have been meeting in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem Syria's bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war.

‘Mutual respect’

Erupting after the government cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, the conflict has claimed more than 130 000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

Brahimi, who has been acting as a go-between for the two sides, has said he is "happy" with the mood and that the parties are acting with "mutual respect".

But he has admitted that progress has been difficult and the two sides are moving very slowly.

The government's promise on Sunday to allow women and children to leave the besieged parts of Homs raised some hopes of humanitarian relief, but was greeted by scepticism on the ground.

Activists in rebel areas of Homs said residents had "no trust" in the government and first wanted aid supplies and guarantees that those leaving would not be arrested.

The Old City of Homs has been under siege since June 2012 after rising against the government, with an estimated 500 families living with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.

Brahimi repeated his hope on Sunday that a convoy of humanitarian aid could enter the besieged area on Monday, saying rebel forces had already agreed and the local governor was considering the issue.

Political transition

Sunday's talks also touched on possible prisoner exchanges, with the opposition saying it had a preliminary list of 47 000 people held by the government, including 2 300 women and children whose names it had submitted.

Government officials said it also wanted lists of prisoners in rebel hands, insisting that the issue be discussed "without discrimination".

With little hope of major political breakthroughs at the talks, mediators have been focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localised ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.

But the opposition has insisted from the start that talks must move on Monday to the core issue of a political transition.

It says Assad must leave power and a transitional government be formed based on an agreement reached during a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.

The government 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.

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



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