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Bitter exchanges at Syrian peace talks

Syria's warring factions have displayed uncompromising stances at the opening of long-awaited talks in Switzerland. Verbal clashes erupted as UN chief Ban Ki-moon pleaded to all sides to save lives through negotiation.

World powers urged Syria's warring sides to seize the opportunity at talks in the Swiss resort of Montreux on Wednesday. Global diplomats said the mere fact that the factions attended was an important first step.

During bitter exchanges in the presence of top Russian and US diplomats amidst delegations from 40 nations and organizations, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem dubbed Syria's opposition "traitors."

The head of the largely exiled opposition, Ahmad al-Jarba, called for the immediate "transfer of power from Assad," echoing demands from rebel militias, who had initially opposed the talks unless Assad departed office.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi replied: "Assad is staying."

The Montreux conference is supposed to lead to 7-to-10 days of negotiations in Geneva under UN auspices starting Friday - between the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and delegates of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

At one stage, al-Moallem's extended speech prompted several calls by Ban to finish, otherwise he would have to give other speakers more time as well.

"You live in New York. I live in Syria. I have a right to give the Syrian version here in this hall," al-Moallem said.

Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry said there was "no way" Assad could be part of any transitional government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Syria's factions to seize a "historic opportunity."

'Fairly clear indications'

At Wednesday's final news conference, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he had heard "some fairly clear indications" from both of Syria's warring sides that they were prepared to discuss aid supplies, prisoner swaps and local ceasefires.

Ban said he would meet both sides separately on Thursday to prepare Friday's intended face-to-face talks.

"We did not expect instant breakthroughs," he added. "The Syrian people are looking desparately for relief from the nightmare in which they are trapped."

Both Kerry and Lavrov spoke in favor of including Iran, Assad's backer, in the further talks.

"Iran certainly does have an ability to be helpful and make a difference," Kerry said.

Ban had initially invited Iran to Wednesday's Montreux talks but then withdrew that invitation, saying Iran had refused to accept that the main goal was to set up a transitional government for Syria.

"Unfortunately, I was not able to get the firm confirmation from the Iranian government at the last minute," Ban said Wednesday.

Visiting Montreax, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday's talks were worthwhile, adding, however, that "nerves were on edge."

Fighting continues

While diplomats sparred in the European Alps, Syrian forces and opposition militias fought across swathes of Syria – from northern Aleppo to southern Daraa.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops had again shelled Waar, a neighborhood of Homs, where thousands of war-displaced have tried to shelter during nearly 600 days of siege.

In the Saydnaya area north of Damascus fighting had claimed the lives of 10 soldiers, the observatory said Wednesday.

Plea from aid groups

At the Davos World Economic Forum, seven major aid and human rights groups described Syria's humanitarian crisis as the "worst in our time."

The groups, including Amnesty International, Care USA, Oxfam International and Save the Children, urged all sides to commit to ensuring the aid "reaches all those in need."

From Rome, Pope Francis urged all sides to "do everything in their power to urgently end the violence."

Last July, the UN put the death toll at 100,000. Earlier this month, it stopped counting, citing its inability to gain access to conflict zones. The observatory put the death toll at more than
130,000. Millions more have been displaced.

ipj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)

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