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Fragile Syria talks enter next phase

One day after an acrimonious opening conference, international mediators have begun a series of "confidence building" talks at separate Geneva hotels with delegations from Syria's opposition and government.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Syria's opposition delegation in Geneva Thursday. He was also due to hold separate talks with a delegation of Syria's government, reportedly hand-picked by President Bashar al-Assad.

Officials said Thursday's closed-door consultations were focused on proposed prisoner swaps and local ceasefires as practical measures to ease warfare, especially the plight of many Syrians cut off from international aid deliveries.

Brahimi said both sides had expressed willingness to discuss both points, seen by mediators as initial steps to a wider political transition in Syria.

Shuttle diplomacy in Geneva

Late Thursday, it was uncertain whether talks would evolve Friday as planned into a mediated face-to-face encounter between both factions.

Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the opposition delegation, said he doubted that the intended bilateral talks would take place Friday, saying Brahimi would probably continue to shuttle between two hotels.

"I don't think we're ready for that yet. The gap is too big," al-Maleh said.

Assad's delegation was staying at Geneva's Hotel de la Paix. The opposition was accommodated at the Intercontinental, 3 kilometers away.

In addition, rebel and Islamist groups within war-torn Syria continued Thursday to demand that Syrian National Coalition (SNC) delegates leave the Geneva talks.

Wide gap

At an

opening conference in Montreux

on Wednesday – attended by numerous world powers and aid groups – Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, insisted that Assad's government was "combating terrorism."

The opposition SNC and the United States demand the formation of a transitional government and the departure of Assad.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "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 Fabius.

Since early 2011 more than 130,000 are believed to have been killed in Syria and nearly a third of its 22 million population driven from their homes.

ipj/kms (Reuters, AP, dpa)

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