Delegates have arrived in Switzerland for talks aimed at finding a political solution to the Syria crisis. After a dispute over an invitation to Iran there was international condemnation of alleged government war crimes.
Members of Bashar al-Assad's administration are set to meet with the opposition on Wednesday for the first direct talks since the uprising that led to a civil war in the country began in 2011.
Diplomats and officials arrived in the lakeside town of Montreaux late on Tuesday, with the level of acrimony between the Syrian government and opposition parties appearing to be as keenly felt as ever.
Ahead of the main event in Switzerland, Qatari-backed war crimes lawyers said they had received photographic evidence of the "systematic torture and killing" of photographers by the Assad government.
'Extremely alarming' report
Photographs taken of some 11,000 dead detainees showed emaciated bodies said to be the result of deliberate starvation, as well as prisoners who had been strangled and beaten. The report by international prosecutors was commissioned by Qatar, which backs the Syrian rebels.
"There is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government," the report concluded.
A spokesman for United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay described the report as "extremely alarming."
"Allegations this serious cannot be ignored and further investigation is clearly necessary," the spokesman, Robert Colville, told the AFP news agency.
Assad presidency is 'red line'
Washington, which also backs the rebels, said there was no reason to doubt that the pictures were real, adding they underscored the need for talks.
"The situation on the ground is so horrific that we need to get a political transition in place and that we need to get the Assad regime out of power," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Tuesday.
However, the Syrian government delegation said the future role of Assad was a "red line." The official SANA news agency quoted Foreign Minister Walid Muallem as saying that his team would do its utmost to ensure progress, but added: "Nobody can touch the presidency."
Proceedings were already off to a shaky start earlier in the week, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a last-minute invitation for Iran to attend the talks.
The invitation was withdrawn after a threat from the Syrian opposition that it would pull out if Tehran - which has repeatedly given its backing to the Assad government - were to be represented.
rc/dr (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)