Syrian rivals meet in Geneva after rocky start

Peace talks got off to a prickly start as the two sides spent a day continuing to blame each other for violence in Syria

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Syria’s warring sides sat down for talks together Tuesday, as the second round of Geneva talks between the Syrian government and opposition delegates got off to a rocky start.

"The Joint Special Representative is meeting this morning with the two delegations simultaneously. The meeting started at 10:00 am (0900 GMT)," U.N. spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian said in an email to reporters, cited by Agence France-Presse.

Delegates from both sides observed a minute of silence for people killed in the three year conflict.

“I hope that the minute of silence will signal an improvement in the atmosphere this time,” opposition delegate Ahmed Jakal told Reuters news agency.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the morning’s joint session started with a minute’s silence “for the souls of the martyrs of the village of Maan in rural Hama.”

The authorities accused Sunni Muslim Islamist fighters of killing 42 people on Sunday in Maan, which is populated by members of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.

Monzer Akbik, a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition, said no civilians were killed in Maan.

“There was a battle over there between (the rebel) Free Syrian Army and Assad forces. The village itself was evacuated of civilians more than six months ago. All people in that battle were killed in action. No civilians were killed in that battle.”

He said that Tuesday’s session was still focused on discussing what the schedule for the week should be and said the two sides were arguing over the length and number of meeting.

“We will not go on and on with the regime games. People are dying and the regime is asking for a limited number of sessions - one session every day and a shortened session,” he said, adding that the opposition wants to increase the number and length of the daily sessions.

A main issue at the talks is the role of Assad in a transitional governing body. The government says it will not discuss his leaving power while the opposition wants no role for the man whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

On Monday, the opposition warned that it would not return for a third round if no progress is made.

“If there is no progress at all, I think it would be a waste of time to think about a third round,” opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters late Monday, according to AFP.

But Safi said the opposition would not “call it quits” as long as there was some hope the talks could progress.

“We’re not going to run away. We’re not going to call it quits,” he said, adding though that if there is no progress “let us not pretend we are doing something.”

In that case, it would be “more honest to say we have failed,” he said -- although he acknowledged the only alternative was to continue fighting the civil war that has already claimed more than 136,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.

During the second round of talks, U.N. Arab League mediator Lahkdar Brahimi met separately with the government and opposition teams, in the hope that keeping them apart at first might help achieve more than during a virtually fruitless first round last month.

While getting the parties back around the same table can be seen as a step in the right direction, there was no sign that the current round, which is expected to last until Friday, would make progress towards ending the bloodshed.

The two sides spent the day continuing to blame each other for escalating violence on the ground, and neither side appeared prepared to budge an inch on their positions.

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