Syrian opposition due late Saturday for Geneva talks

30th January 2016, Comments 0 comments

A delegation from Syria's main opposition umbrella group will arrive on Saturday evening in Switzerland to join peace talks, a spokesman told AFP.

Monzer Makhous said the delegation from the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was preparing to leave Riyadh and would be joined later in Geneva by HNC head Riad Hijab.

He said the HNC may meet with the United Nations on Sunday.

A source close to the HNC said that the group was sending 17 negotiators and 25 others to the UN-mediated negotiations.

Late Friday the HNC grudgingly relented to Western and Saudi pressure to attend the talks, the biggest push to date to chart a way out of the tangled, five-year-old Syrian war.

A 16-member delegation representing President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Geneva on Friday and held preliminary talks with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura.

For now, no face-to-face talks between the opposition and the regime are expected. Instead "proximity talks" are envisioned whereby go-betweens shuttle between the participants.

They are part of an ambitious programme for Syria set out in November in Vienna by the many external powers embroiled in the war including the US, Russia, Gulf states, Iran and Turkey.

The so-called Vienna Process foresees elections within 18 months but leaves open the thorny question of Assad's future role. Talks were originally meant to start on January 1.

Meeting in Saudi Arabia over four days, the HNC had demanded an end to bombardments of civilians, as well as an agreement on humanitarian aid to ease suffering in besieged towns, before agreeing to take part.

The group had also asked for "clarifications" after the UN invited other opposition figures who are thought to have closer ties to Moscow and limited influence on the ground.

The HNC and its Saudi and Turkish backers have objected to the participation of Syrian Kurdish groups that have made key advances against Islamic State extremists in recent months.

The highly complex Syrian war has killed more than 260,000 people, driven half the population from their homes and fuelled the meteoric rise of IS.

Millions of those fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and hundreds of thousands have also travelled to Europe, causing major political tensions there.

© 2016 AFP

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