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Syrian peace talks offer hope to trapped civilians

Source : AP/ NY Times | 27 Jan 2014

GENEVA — Two days of face-to-face peace talks yielded a narrow and tentative agreement Sunday for the evacuation of women and children trapped in a besieged Syrian city, and the government said President Bashar Assad had no intention of giving up “the keys to Damascus.”

It was unclear when and how the plan to let the women and children leave a blockaded part of the old city of Homs would take effect, particularly in the light of multiple reports of government shelling in the area. Activists say about 800 families are trapped in Homs. The government said a list of male civilians must be submitted before the men could leave, raising fears that they would be subject to arrest.

The plan fell short of what international mediators were seeking: the entry of a United Nations aid convoy to areas of the city that have been without access to food for months and where malnutrition is on the rise.

The talks have yet to touch upon the issue of a possible transitional government — their purpose according to terms laid out when they were first conceived. But the government was unequivocal that Assad’s future was assured in the country led by his family since 1970.

“This is a red line. If some people think we are coming here to give them the keys to Damascus, they are wrong,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, echoing the language that President Barack Obama used to describe a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

In Syria, the blockaded districts of Homs came under intense fire that activists blamed on the government, calling into question how any deals reached in remote Switzerland could be implemented or verified in a chaotic civil war with dozens of players that began as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad. More than 130,000 people have died in less than three years, and millions of Syrians have fled their homes.

U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi acknowledged that the agreement for Homs fell short of hopes, but “to bring Syria out of the ditch in which it has fallen will take time.”

Monzer Akbik, an opposition spokesman, said the coalition was determined to stay for the political talks set to begin Monday despite accusing the government of stalling.

“They were sidestepping some issues and saying they want to refer back to Damascus for answers. It is clear to us that the regime delegation is not in charge of its own decisions,” Akbik said.

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. They say Assad is propped up by aid, weapons and fighters from Iran and Russia.

The government says the rebellion is rife with terrorists and that Assad is the only person able to end the fighting, blaming the West and Gulf states — especially Saudi Arabia — of turning the country into an al-Qaeda haven.

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.

“The regime is blocking all convoys to Homs and has been doing so for months,” a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because the talks remain sensitive. “The situation in Homs is extremely urgent. Anything the government says to the contrary is false.”

The two sides failed to reach agreement on a prisoner exchange, as Brahimi had hoped. Al-Mekdad said a list of names submitted by the opposition was greatly exaggerated, adding the government had no children in its jails, while the opposition said it had no control over the militants who have kidnapped hundreds of people, including aid workers and journalists.