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Syrian peace talks in disarray again

The biggest push to date to end Syria’s tangled war was thrown into fresh disarray Tuesday as the government denied formal peace negotiations had begun and the opposition cancelled a meeting with the UN envoy.

Chief regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari insisted that discussions were still “in a preparatory phase,” only a day after UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura announced the Geneva talks had officially started.

“We are still in the preparatory phase for indirect talks … We still don’t know who the opposition delegation is,” Jaafari told reporters after meeting de Mistura.

“We also asked for the names of participants and the agenda of indirect talks… We are waiting to know… whom we will negotiate with,” he said, saying the opposition delegation was not made up of “professional politicians”.

De Mistura, the third person to be UN Syria envoy, said late Monday that his first formal meeting with the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) signalled the official start of the hoped-for six months of peace talks.

He said he expected the talks to be “complicated and difficult” but hoped they would “achieve something” in time for a mooted meeting of key outside players announced by Russia for February 11 in Munich, Germany.

In another sign that political momentum had slowed, HNC representatives told journalists they would not attend a scheduled meeting with de Mistura on Tuesday.

“There is no meeting with de Mistura,” said HNC member Farah Atassi.

“We presented the demands that we wanted to demand. At this moment, there is no reason to repeat ourselves with de Mistura,” she added.

The HNC has demanded the regime allows humanitarian access to besieged towns, stops bombing civilians and releases thousands of prisoners — some of them children — languishing in regime jails.

“We are waiting for an answer from de Mistura on what we discussed yesterday. We need to see the lifting of sieges,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told reporters.

– The war on IS –

Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than 260,000 people have died and more than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes.

The conflict has dragged in a range of international players, from Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states to Western nations and Russia.

The chaos has also fuelled the rise of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group which has overrun swathes of Syria and Iraq and staged a raft of deadly attacks across the globe, including in Paris in November.

The extremist Sunni Muslim group claimed responsibility for multiple blasts on Sunday on a revered Shiite shrine south of Damascus that killed at least 70 people.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Rome on Tuesday meeting foreign ministers from the US-led coalition against IS to discuss efforts to combat the group.

In November, world powers agreed in Vienna on an ambitious roadmap that foresees six months of intra-Syrian talks, leading to a new constitution and free elections within 18 months.

But they did not address the thorny issue of the future of Assad, whose forces have made progress on the ground since late September thanks to a bombing campaign by Russia.

On Tuesday, Syrian state news agency SANA and monitors said government troops backed by militants had taken key villages north of Aleppo, close to two other villages long under rebel siege.

– ‘Terrorist’ negotiators –

President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which is backed by Moscow and Tehran, is objecting to the inclusion in the HNC of certain rebels it denounces as “terrorists”.

One of these is Mohammed Alloush, a member of the powerful Army of Islam armed rebel group who arrived in Geneva late Monday to act as the HNC’s chief negotiator.

Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that if members of any such groups “take part in negotiations… (they) will do so in a personal capacity,” Interfax reported.

Outside powers were also in Geneva keeping a close eye on proceedings, with Jaafari reportedly meeting with the Russian ambassador, Western envoys in contact with the opposition and US and Russian officials in discussions.