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UN Syria envoy ‘optimistic and determined’ after meeting opposition

The UN Syria envoy said Sunday he was “optimistic and determined” following an informal meeting with the main opposition group, after it had threatened to leave before planned peace talks begin in earnest.

“I am optimistic and determined because it’s an historic occasion not to be missed,” UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters as he left a Geneva hotel after an informal meeting with delegates from the High Negotiations Committee.

The meeting took place outside the UN’s European headquarters, where talks on ending Syria’s nearly five-year conflict have been scheduled.

It came a day after HNC representatives said for now they would not enter the hoped-for indirect talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, who began formal talks with de Mistura on Friday.

Before agreeing to sit down for the so-called proximity talks, in which de Mistura is set to shuttle between the sides, HNC has demanded that humanitarian aid first gets through to besieged towns, that bombing of civilians ceases and that hundreds of prisoners are released.

“We only came to Geneva after written commitments on the fact that there would be serious progress on the humanitarian issues,” HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told reporters.

“We are here for political negotiations but we cannot start those until we have those gestures,” he said, adding however that “we are optimistic and we are here to really find a solution for all Syrians, no matter what side they are on.”

De Mistura meanwhile said it remained unclear if the HNC would agree to an official meeting at the UN later Sunday.

It is “up to the HNC to let us know,” he said, stressing though that he was “optimistic, and we are working hard.”

He said he had paid the “courtesy call to the HNC” since “they deserved that we pay attention to their own concerns.”

“I have been explaining what is the plan and what all meetings are about,” he said.

He told journalists that HNC would “let you know and let me know when and how they can be part of this exercise.”

Syria’s war has killed more than 260,000 people since March 2011, while half of the country’s population has fled their homes and millions have become refugees in neighbouring countries and beyond.