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Syria peace conference exposes deep rifts over Assad

MONTREUX: Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, angrily spelled out their mutual hostility on Wednesday at a U.N. peace conference where world powers also offered sharply divergent views on forcing out Bashar al-Assad.

Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused the president of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in Montreux, Switzerland sign up to an international plan for handing over power.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands and painted a graphic picture of "terrorist" rebel atrocities supported by Arab and Western states who back the opposition and were present in the room.

"Assad isn't going," Syria's information minister said.

The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the conference which U.N. officials hope will lead to negotiations in Geneva from Friday, also revealed their differences over Assad during a day of formal presentations in Montreux on Lake Geneva.

The talks reflect mounting global concern that a war which has killed over 130,000 and left millions homeless is spilling beyondSyria and fuelling sectarian militancy abroad. But there was little sign that any party was ready to make concessions.

Western officials said they were taken aback by the combative tone adopted by Moualem, who also defied United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plea to shorten his speech. Some diplomats questioned whether negotiations could continue.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed the rebel view that there is "no way" Assad can stay under the terms of a 2012 international accord urging an interim coalition. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all sides had a role and condemned "one-sided interpretations" of the 2012 pact.

Saudi Arabia, which backs the Sunni rebels, called for Iran and its Shi'ite Lebanese ally Hezbollah to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran, locked in a sectarian confrontation across the region, was absent, shunned by the opposition and the West for rejecting calls for a transitional government. Its president said Tehran's exclusion meant talks were unlikely to succeed.

The conference has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even taking part.

But even Western officials said hopes of talks in Geneva on Friday and beyond may be in jeopardy: "It's very far from encouraging," said a French diplomatic source. "We have the impression the regime has come to Geneva to ensure it fails."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Moualem's rejection of any government responsibility for the crisis "astounding and infuriating". Progress with Damascus was at risk, he said, "if they don't show some intelligence".

Source: Reuters




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