GENEVA (AP) — The first face-to-face meeting between Syria's government and the opposition hoping to overthrow President Bashar Assad ended after barely a half-hour Saturday, with the two sides facing each other silently as a U.N. mediator laid groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war.
After tense days spent avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad's handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition gathered briefly at a single U-shaped table, then emerged and went separate ways, using different doors to avert contact.
The only speaker was the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi.
"It was not easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children," said Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition's representatives. He said everyone remained calm.
The two sides were distant going into the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing less than Assad's departure. Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that has killed 130,000 people.
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, said right before the talks started that there was still an "enormous gap" in how the two sides interpreted a transitional government.
"Those who talk about President Bashar Assad are talking about removing the man who is leading the war against terrorism," he said.
Al-Abdeh said the antagonists would face each other again later Saturday but would only address Brahimi, not each other.
First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs, Syria's third-largest city. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled.
Homs was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011 after Assad responded to largely peaceful protests by unleashing the military. A quarter of the country's population has been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. Meanwhile, a homegrown rebellion has transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.
Russia and the United States have taken opposite sides in the war, with Russia selling Assad with military hardware and using its influence on the Security Council. The United States has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaida inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.
Complicating any truce efforts, a medley of rebel groups fight from Homs and nearby opposition-held areas, ranging from al-Qaida hardline extremists to conservative Muslim brigades, to the more secular fighters of the Free Syrian Army. They are mostly holed up in or near the old city.
By Saturday afternoon, there was no sign of violence halting in Homs, nor had humanitarian aid entered rebel-held areas blockaded by Assad-loyal forces, said a Homs-based activist and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist identified himself by pseudonym, Firas Homsi, as is typical for those who fear reprisal.
Homsi said there were about 800 Syrian families still in the old city, under blockade for the past 20 months. "Our situation here is very bad. There's no food and we are using outdated medicine," said Homsi, who had heard remors of a truce but saw no evidence of it.
Assad's forces and — to a lesser extent — rebel groups have blockaded enemy areas, harshly punishing the poorest and most vulnerable civilians for the gunmen in their midst.
Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.
Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Geneva and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed.
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