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Syrian enemies may discuss prisoner swaps despite talks acrimony

Syria's government and opposition, meeting for the first time, vented their mutual hostility on Wednesday but a U.N. mediator said the enemies may be ready to discuss prisoner swaps, local ceasefires and humanitarian aid.

Russia said the rival sides had promised to start direct talks on Friday despite fears that a standoff over President Bashar al-Assad's fate would halt the push for a political solution to Syria's civil war, which has killed over 130,000 and made millions homeless.

Even if the sides are willing to discuss limited confidence-building measures, expectations for the peace process remain low, with Islamist rebels and Assad ally Iran absent and a solution to the three-year war still far off.

Western officials were taken aback by the combative tone of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at the one-day a U.N. peace conference in Switzerland, fearing follow-up negotiations would never get off the ground due to the acrimony.

But after a day of bitter speeches in the lakeside city of Montreux, international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi signalled that both sides were ready to move beyond rhetoric. "We have had some fairly clear indications that the parties are willing to discuss issues of access to needy people, the liberation of prisoners and local ceasefires," he told a news conference.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had urged Damascus to release detainees as a confidence-building measure and appealed to both sides. "Enough is enough, the time has to come to negotiate," he told reporters.

Russia, which co-sponsored the Montreux meeting with the United States, said the rival Syrian delegations had promised to sit down on January 24 for talks which were expected to last about seven days.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov played down the recriminations on Wednesday, when the opposition called for Assad to hand over power – a demand dismissed by Moualem, who in turn graphically described atrocities by "terrorist" rebels.

"As expected, the sides came up with rather emotional statements, they blamed one another," Lavrov told reporters. However, he added: "For the first time in three years of the bloody conflict … the sides – for all their accusations – agreed to sit down at the negotiating table."

Lavrov, who met Moualem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba on Wednesday, urged Assad's opponents and their foreign backers not to focus exclusively on leadership change.

Wednesday's meeting exposed sharp differences on forcing out Assad, both between the government and opposition, and among the foreign powers which fear that the conflict is spilling beyond Syria and encouraging sectarian militancy abroad.

Jarba accused Assad of Nazi-style war crimes and demanded the Syrian government delegation sign up to an international plan for handing over power. Moualem insisted Assad would not bow to outside demands, denouncing atrocities committed by rebels supported by the Arab and Western states whose delegations were sitting in the conference room.

(Reuters)

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