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UN-sponsored Syria peace talks move on to third day in Geneva

The Syrian opposition delegation is refusing to negotiate at peace talks until its demands for releasing detainees, ending bombardments and lifting blockades are met. The UN-sponsored talks are being held in Geneva.

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Syrian opposition to join peace talks

The UN-sponsored

Syria peace talks

in Geneva continued on Saturday with a delegation from the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC) representing the main Syria opposition group agreeing to meet with UN officials.

"We are here to discuss humanitarian matters first and if this happens we will start the negotiations," the HNC's chief spokesman Salem al-Mislet (photo) told reporters upon the arrival of some two dozen members at their hotel in Geneva. "If not, there will be no negotiations and there will be no reason for us to stay here."

The HNC boycotted the meeting held between the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura and the Syrian government delegation on Friday.

Salem al-Mislet said the HNC had a meeting scheduled for Sunday with de Mistura to discuss lifting the Syrian government's siege on rebel-held areas, an end to Russian and Syrian bombardment of regions controlled by opposition fighters and other humanitarian issues such as the release of detainees.

"We are keen to make this negotiation a success but you should ask the other side. The other side is pretending to present the Syrian people. In fact he is killing the Syrian people. We're here to save the remaining children of Syria," al-Mislet said.

Multi-party talks

The composition of the opposition delegation has been complicated by the number of rebel groups involved in the conflict. Delegation member Riad Naasan Agha said several rebel groups were represented - including the Army of Islam which controls large areas near the capital Damascus. Naasan Agha said the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group was part of the delegation although "they are not with us" at the Geneva talks.

Syria opposition delegate Riad Naasan Agha

Syria opposition delegate Riad Naasan Agha

The talks are part of the process outlined in a UN resolution passed in December for an 18-month agenda for a political transition in Syria. It includes drafting of a new constitution and elections.

"When there is an order for a cease fire against civilians, an order to lift the siege and an order to release detainees then we will enter the negotiations and talk about a transitional governing body with full executive powers," Naasan Agha said.

The opposition delegation wants a governing body to rule Syria during the transitional period and that President Bashar al Assad should play no role.

Representatives from Syria's largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), left Geneva on Saturday after being excluded from the negotiations. The PYD received no invitation from UN Envoy de Mistura. This brought a strong reaction from Qadri Jamil, a former Syrian dputy prime minister. He said the PYD's miltary wing had been the most effective force on the ground fighting the so-called "Islamic State" (IS).

Russia's support of President Bashar al Assad has been a key factor in finding a solution to the conflict in Syria. Commentators are now suggesting Moscow could be prepared to see him go if a replacement can be found who would assure Russia keeps its final foothold in the Middle East.

"If Iran loses Syria, it loses by far its biggest ally in the Middle East. If Russia loses Syria, it's a big geopolitical blow at a time when it's facing isolation," according to Shashank Joshi, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

jm/bw (AP, AFP)

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