Syrian negotiators remain at odds even on aid, prisoner exchange

Highlighting the immense hurdles facing efforts at peace in Syria, representatives of the Assad regime and the opposition failed to find common ground on the release of prisoners or humanitarian aid during Sunday's negotiations.

By , Associated Press

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    Syrian opposition chief negotiator Hadi Bahra, (center l.), and Louay Safi, (center r.), spokesperson for the Syrian National Coalition leave a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Sunday. Syrians on opposite sides of their country’s civil war tried again Sunday to find common ground.
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Syrians on opposite sides of their country's civil war tried again Sunday to find common ground, but a morning session focusing on the release of prisoners and an aid convoy to a besieged central city failed to produce an agreement, delegates said.

The delegation for President Bashar Assad complained that the talks are avoiding the main issues and questioned their usefulness, while the opposition said the government negotiating team wanted to "lecture" instead of make decisions.

Underscoring the immense hurdles facing the peace talks now in their third day, officials said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator, would hold separate meetings with the two delegates in the afternoon to try to resolve differences.

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The proposed convoy of aid to HomsSyria, which has been under government attack for more than a year, would provide a tangible success for a peace conference beset from the start by low expectations.

But the opposition accused the government of "stalling" and said no progress had been made yet. Homs also once more came under mortar attacks from the government.

Brahimi said the thorniest topic — a possible transitional government — will not come up until at least Monday.

He said late Saturday that the two sides would first try to come together over humanitarian aid and a possible prisoner exchange, describing a process of "half-steps."

"I think this belittles the importance of this conference and the goal that was drawn for it," said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad.

Syrian state-run news agency SANA said that while the government delegation underscored the need for humanitarian aid to reach all areas in Syria, "the delegation of the so-called 'opposition' continued to be obstinate and refused to talk about anything other than delivering aid to a small area in Homs city."

The Western-backed opposition, made up largely of exiled Syrians, says Assad has lost legitimacy and can no longer lead a country after unleashing the military on largely peaceful protests nearly three years ago.

The government says the rebellion is rife with terrorists and that Assad is the only person able to end the fighting that has killed more than 130,000 people.

In the meantime, the homegrown rebellion has become a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.

Homs was considered a promising place to start the negotiations.

The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels.

The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled. Activists say about 800 families are trapped, without regular access to food, medicine and basic necessities.

Obaida Nahas, a member of the opposition coalition's negotiating team, said that a convoy of 12 trucks trying to get the humanitarian aid into Homs has not been allowed in yet. He added the opposition submitted to Brahimi a list with the names of more than 1,000 women and 1,300 children detainees, demanding their immediate release by the government.

The Syrian government delegation asked to refer back to Damascus before giving its final answer on a Homs truce later Sunday, he said.

"Unfortunately we felt there was hostility, and an insistence to focus on issues of combating terrorism," Nahas told reporters following the meeting. "They tried to lecture us."

He said the two delegations will hold separate meetings with Brahimi, which he described as "preparatory talks" about the political issues that would be discussed Monday.

"If there are no aid convoys entering Homs, then we consider that the other party is not serious about this process," said Monzer Akbik, another opposition spokesman. He added, however, that the opposition is determined to stay for the political talks set to begin Monday. He accused the government of using "stalling techniques."

Syrian activists, including the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some rebel-held districts in Homs came under attack Sunday morning by mortars fired by Syrian government forces.

There were no reports about the aid convoy that Brahimi said Saturday was ready to go. "It is very unfortunate that the fighting continues, that the shelling continues," he said.

Heavy fighting also continued Sunday in the Qadam neighborhood on the southern fringe of Damascus, where at least 35 rebels and government troops were killed the previous day, said Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory's director.

Abdurrahman said rebels, including fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, attacked a checkpoint in the area and tried to shut the main highway to the southern city of Daraa and the Jordanian border.

Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Geneva and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.

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