Aid and release of prisoners on the table at Syria peace talks in Geneva

We haven't achieved much but we'll keep going, says UN envoy, who's acting as a buffer between protagonists who refuse to talk to each other

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 4:40am

The fates of the thousands of people jailed, kidnapped or missing in Syria were on the table yesterday as the country's warring sides pursued UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

The opposing parties discussed aid and prisoner releases in talks aimed at building some kind of trust before tough political negotiations, but there was no sign of the early progress sought by an international mediator.

Russia, one of the talks' sponsors, said any agreement on easing the humanitarian crisis created by the Syrian civil war would help to improve the atmosphere at the Geneva talks, but acknowledged that two sides' positions were polarised, emotions were on edge and the situation remained extremely grave.

Following their first face-to-face talks on Saturday, government and opposition representatives met again in the presence of mediator Lakhdar Brahimi yesterday. Opposition sources said Brahimi would hold separate sessions with the two sides, although it was not immediately clear why.

Underlining the immense difficulty of implementing even local agreements on the ground, a UN agency trying to deliver aid to a besieged district of Damascus said state checkpoint officials had hampered its work, despite government assurances it would allow the distributions.

In Geneva, opposition figures said they presented a list of 47,000 detainees whose release they are seeking, as well as 2,500 women and children whose freedom they say is a priority.

Opposition delegate Monzer Akbik said the government had promised to answer a request for aid to be let into the rebel-held centre of Homs city, besieged by President Bashar al-Assad's forces for 18 months, where the opposition says 500 families urgently need food and medicine.

"The regime said they will have to go back to Damascus to make a final decision on this and they will give an answer later today," Akbik said. "This is a stalling technique. ... We have noticed lack of seriousness from the regime side."

However, the two sides disputed even basic facts. Syrian TV cited a government source as saying Damascus was ready to release any civilians "but the coalition of what is known as the opposition has refrained from presenting a list".

Homs was one of the early centres of protest against Assad's rule, which erupted in 2011 before Syria slid into civil war. Since the start of the crisis more than 130,000 people have been killed, two million have become refugees and about half of the country's residents need aid, the United Nations says.

In an interview with NTV television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for progress on aid, unblocking besieged areas and prisoner exchanges.

"All this would strengthen trust and affect the atmosphere at the talks in Geneva. Beyond this it is very difficult to make guesses; the situation is extremely grave, positions are polarised, emotions are on the edge," he said in comments posted on the Foreign Ministry's web site.

Humanitarian efforts in Syria have been hindered by fighting and by combatants on both sides who often try to block deliveries. The UN Relief and Works Agency complained about problems in delivering food and other aid to Yarmouk, a district of Damascus that is home to impoverished Syrians and Palestinians despite government assurances.

Faced with finding common ground between two intractably opposed parties, Brahimi dedicated the first two days of talks to humanitarian issues, hoping to create a platform on which to build far tougher political talks.

He plans to start addressing today what he has called the core issue of the talks - implementing a June 2012 accord that called for the establishment of a transitional governing body by mutual consent.

The opposition says that means Assad must go, a demand the government has dismissed out of hand.