Syria peace talks hit snags as US urges rivals to act
Syrian peace talks ran into trouble Sunday with the government delegation denouncing opposition negotiators as "not serious" as Washington urged both sides to seize the moment to end five years of bloodshed.
And in Syria, more than 50 people were killed in a triple bombing near a revered Shiite shrine outside the capital Damascus in the latest bloody attack claimed by the extremist Islamic State group.
But despite the standoff in Geneva, where key players have gathered for indirect talks to end the nearly five-year war, the United Nations' chief Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura insisted he remained "optimistic and determined."
The talks began in Switzerland on January 29 although the main umbrella opposition group, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), only showed up on Saturday night when it outlined a host of conditions before it would agree to join the so-called proximity talks.
Among its demands are that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach besieged towns, a halt to the bombing of civilians and the release of hundreds of prisoners.
"We only came to Geneva after written commitments on the fact that there would be serious progress on the humanitarian issues," HNC spokeswoman Basma Kodmani told reporters as the delegation held informal talks with de Mistura on Sunday.
"We are here for political negotiations but we cannot start those until we have those gestures."
But US Secretary of State John Kerry urged both sides to play a full role in the talks, while accusing Bashar al-Assad's forces of starving civilians.
"In light of what is at stake in these talks, I appeal to both sides to make the most of this moment," he said, in an online statement broadcast from Washington.
While the top US diplomat aimed his remarks at both sides, his message was clearly aimed at the opposition, which has threatened to leave Geneva even before talks start if Assad's regime does not halt its "crimes".
Kerry urged the opposition to drop their preconditions, but also had hard words for their foes, accusing Assad's forces of deliberately starving the beleaguered cities in a reference to news of another 16 deaths from starvation in the besieged city of Madaya.
Speaking earlier on Sunday, Damascus's chief negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari denounced the opposition as "not serious".
"We do not know who is the other side. They don't even have a final list," he told a packed news conference.
"Those who set pre-conditions are violating the preparatory agreement from the UN," he said, insisting that his government -- which has made gains on the ground since Russia began air strikes in September -- "wants to put an end to the bloodshed."
- More starvation deaths -
As the diplomatic wrangling continued, there was no let-up to the violence on the ground, with Islamic State extremists claiming responsibility for a triple attack near a revered Shiite shrine outside Damascus that killed at least 50 people.
And highlighting the dire humanitarian situation, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Saturday said 16 more people had starved to death in Madaya, one of more than a dozen towns under blockade by regime or rebel forces.
The latest deaths brought to 46 the total number of people who have died of starvation since December, with MSF warning dozens more were at risk in the town where many have reportedly been surviving on boiled grass.
They are among more than 4.5 million people with "immense humanitarian needs" who are living in areas extremely hard to access because of fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
- 'Siege soup' -
The Geneva talks are scheduled to continue for six months, and on Friday demonstrators gathered in the city to highlight the plight of ordinary Syrians with a "siege soup" of grass and leaves.
More than quarter of a million people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011, with the bloodshed drawing in a wide range of actors from Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia.
The chaos in Syria has allowed IS militants to overrun swathes of the country and also in neighbouring Iraq, giving it a launchpad for a series of deadly attacks across the globe including the Paris massacres on November 13 which left 130 dead.
Half of Syria's population have fled their homes, forcing millions to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and also in Europe, where the influx has sparked a major political and social crisis.
The Syrian peace talks, should the all the parties agree to engage, are part of an ambitious roadmap agreed by top diplomats in Vienna last year, that envisages negotiations followed by a transitional government, a new constitution and elections within 18 months.
But it leaves the question of Assad's future unresolved.
Another thorny issue is which rebel groups will be involved in the talks, although all sides agree on the exclusion of extremists from IS and Al-Nusra Front, which is allied to Al-Qaeda.
The powerful Army of Islam rebel group is part of HNC's delegation to Geneva, but chief negotiator and Army of Islam member Mohammed Alloush has yet to arrive, an HNC spokesman said.
© 2016 AFP