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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria gov't, opposition clash at first summit

Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility at a UN peace conference, where world powers also offered sharply differing views on forcing out President Bashar al-Assad.

Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in Switzerland sign up to an international plan for handing over power.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands, graphically describing what he called atrocities of the "terrorists" - rebels supported by the Arab and Western states which were present in the room.

"Assad isn't going," Syria's information minister said.

The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the conference which UN officials hope will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday, also revealed their differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations in Montreux on Lake Geneva.

The talks reflect global concern that a civil war which has killed over 130,000 and made millions homeless is spilling beyond Syria and encouraging sectarian militancy abroad.

There was little sign that any party was ready to make concessions at the meeting, which ended in the late afternoon.

Western officials were taken aback by the combative tone of Moualem, who also defied United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plea to shorten his speech in testy exchanges.

"Hope exists but it's fragile. We must continue because the solution to this terrible Syrian conflict is political and needs us to continue discussions," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. "Obviously when we hear Bashar al-Assad's representative, whose tone is radically different, we know it will be difficult."

Moualem called on foreign powers to stop "supporting terrorism" and to lift sanctions against Damascus.

Referring to rebel acts, he said: "In Syria, the wombs of pregnant women are cut open, the foetuses are killed. Women are raped, dead or alive ... Men are slaughtered in front of their children in the name of the revolution."

He insisted Assad's future was not in question, saying: "Nobody in this world has a right to withdraw legitimacy from a president or government ... other than the Syrians themselves."

US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urging an interim coalition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides had a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012 pact.

Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'ite Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran, locked in a sectarian confrontation across the region, was absent, shunned by the opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. Its president said Tehran's exclusion meant talks were unlikely to succeed.

The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even taking part.

But even Western officials said hopes of talks in Geneva on Friday and beyond may be in jeopardy: "It's very far from encouraging," said a French diplomatic source. "We have the impression the regime has come to Geneva to ensure it fails."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Moualem's rejection of any government responsibility for the crisis "astounding and infuriating". Progress with Damascus was at risk, he said, "if they don't show some intelligence".

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Tags:  Syria  rebels  Assad  peace talks  





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