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Syrian opposition belatedly sends delegation to Geneva peace talks

A Syrian opposition group has insisted it will only discuss its preconditions to peace talks in Geneva. The group has called for the end of sieges that Doctors Without Borders has said claimed 16 more lives.

A delegation from Syria's main opposition group arrived in Switzerland Saturday night, but it remained unclear whether they would actually join UN-backed peace talks aimed at ending Syria's civil war.

The group includes 17 negotiators, led by the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC) head Riad Hijab, and negotiating team leader, Asaad al-Zoubi.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Saturday he was relieved that some peace talks had begun on Friday.

"That the Geneva peace negotiation have in fact begun in January is an encouraging signal," he told Germany's "Welt am Sonntag" newspaper in comments released ahead of publication on Sunday.

But the HNC, which has balked at attending the talks, said it will only discuss its preconditions for formal peace negotiations, which are aimed at ending the country's five-year-old conflict.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the talks must ensure human rights are upheld as negotiators work towards a political transition in Syria.

"Humanitarian law must be respected and the objective of a political transition actively pursued to enable the talks to succeed," Fabius said in a statement sent to Reuters news agency on Saturday.

Genf Friedensverhandlungen zu Krieg in Syrien - Staffan de Mistura

UN's Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura (L), met with representatives of the Syrian regime on Friday

For its part, the HNC has demanded an end to bombardments of civilians as well as

an agreement on humanitarian aid to ease suffering in besieged cities

before agreeing to take part in peace negotiations.

"We are going to Geneva to put to the test the seriousness of the international community in its promises to the Syrian people and to also test the seriousness of the regime in implementing its humanitarian obligations," said HNC spokesman Riyad Naasan Agha. "We want to show the world our seriousness in moving towards negotiations to find a political solution."

The brutal civil war, which has killed more than 260,000 people and displaced millions more, has also devastated areas in which civilians have no escape.

Trapped and starving

The aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said

it has documented 46 deaths due to starvation over the past two months

and that hundreds more are suffering severe malnutrition in the town of Madaya.

The plight of Madaya's 42,000 residents is among the worst in the country. The town is not only surrounded by government troops but also by landmines - placed to keep people from fleeing the town.

"It is totally unacceptable that people continue to die from starvation, and that critical medical cases remain in the town when they should have been evacuated weeks ago," said MSF's director of operations, Brice de le Vingne. "The warring parties responsible for these besiegement strategies need to allow unhindered medical and humanitarian access immediately."

"We are not calling for miracles," he said, "nor a complete cessation of hostilities but the indiscriminate shelling of markets, hospitals and schools by the regime and its Russian backers."

Watch video 00:30

'Starvation as a weapon is a war crime'

The UN estimates that

nearly 500,000 Syrians are under siege across the country

, either by the government or various rebel and other militant groups. The organization said this week that 75 percent of its requests for aid deliveries in Syria were blocked by the government.

Should there be a formal commencement of peace talks, one of the main sticking points will be the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow, but opposed by Washington and rebel groups in Syria.

bik/sms (Reuters, AFP)

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