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UN 'optimistic' after sit-down with Syrian opposition

A Syrian opposition delegation has met for the first time with the UN's special envoy in Geneva. The group has threatened to shun peace talks unless its demands to get humanitarian aid to besieged areas are met.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura expressed optimism after meeting with opposition delegates on Sunday, despite uncertainty over whether the group would attend talks aimed at ending Syria's five-year-old civil war.

"I am optimistic and determined because it's an historic occasion not to be missed," de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

Speaking from Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the envoy's sentiments, and warned the conflict could easily spread across the Middle East if no negotiated settlement was reached.

"In light of what is at stake in these talks, I appeal to both sides to make the most of this moment," he said. Kerry also called on the Syrian government to take immediate steps to increase food aid and other humanitarian assistance to its people.

Representatives from the Syrian government began formal talks with de Mistura on Friday. The main opposition bloc, known as the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), arrived in Switzerland late Saturday, but has thus far refused to join talks with the regime.

De Mistura said opposition members had shared "some of their own ideas and they will let you know and let me know when and how they can be part of this exercise," stressing that he was "optimistic, and we are working hard."

Preconditions

Before agreeing to indirect talks, which foresee de Mistura shuttling between the two sides, the HNC wants an end to the bombing of opposition-held areas and for humanitarian aid to be let through to besieged towns. The group said Sunday there was no point in them staying in Geneva unless action was taken.

"We only came...after written commitments on the fact that there would be serious progress on the humanitarian situation," said HNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani.

"We are here for political negotiations but we cannot start those until we have those gestures [in place]," she added.

Syrian peace talks

UN-sponsored peace talks kicked off on Friday without the main opposition bloc

'Not serious'

Earlier Sunday, Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, told a press conference in Geneva that he would "not accept any preconditions" and that the opposition's threat to pull out of talks "does not show any form of seriousness."

The planned talks, expected to last six months, are part of the process outlined in a December UN resolution that envisions an 18-month agenda for political transition in Syria. But even if formal talks go ahead, a number of sticking points remain.

One of them is the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow but opposed by Washington and rebel groups in Syria. Another thorny issue is the inclusion of representatives from two Islamic rebel groups - Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam - in the opposition's delegation. Syria's government regards these groups as terrorists who should be excluded from the process, while to the HNC they are fellow rebels.

"We don't deal with terrorists," Jaafari said. "This is exactly why the special envoy insisted on holding indirect talks."

More than 260,000 Syrians have been killed since their country descended into civil war in 2011, and millions have fled their homes.

nm/cmk (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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