GENEVA (AP) — Syria's government handed an ultimatum to a U.N. mediator hoping to broker peace in the country's civil war, vowing to leave if "serious talks" do not begin by Saturday.
The Western-backed opposition, which agreed to the talks only under intense diplomatic pressure, said it was willing to be patient — but not yet willing to sit face-to-face with the government it wants to overthrow.
Both sides appeared to be trying to shift the blame for the faltering peace conference, which aims to stem the violence that has killed more than 130,000 people, destabilized the region and turned Syria into a rallying cry for al-Qaida-inspired militants.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's delegation met for less than 90 minutes Friday in Geneva with U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, where Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told him if "serious talks don't begin Saturday, the official Syrian delegation will have to leave because the other party is not serious or ready," according to Syrian state television.
Direct talks planned for Friday between the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition were scrapped, and the opposition was to meet separately with Brahimi later.
Direct negotiations are seen by many diplomats as the best hope for an eventual end to the three-year civil war that has killed at least 130,000 people. Both sides have spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting, calling each other terrorists and blaming each other for driving a once-thriving country into ruin.
Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the opposition, told The Associated Press there was not enough common ground for direct talks on Friday. The opposition has demanded Assad's departure, a position flatly rejected by his government.
"The transition to a free Syria is the key to fighting terror," said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.
"We will be patient," said Louay Safi, a coalition spokesman. "The negotiations are just starting."
As the peace conference faltered, fighting raged throughout parts of Syria, including near Damascus, the capital. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists.
Protesters in several Syrian towns demonstrated against the Geneva peace talks, saying Assad had shown with years of military strikes against his people that he favors violence over negotiations.
"We are bombed and nobody cares," sang one demonstrator in the town of Sabqa. "The Assad regime doesn't understand the language of dialogue. We will remove this criminal regime by force," read one sign.
Demonstrators in the northern town of Darayan held up another English-language sign reading, "Time is blood" — an indication that some felt Assad may be playing for time with the peace talks.
Back in Switzerland, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, questioned whether the opposition coalition — made up largely of exiles based in Turkey — was prepared to negotiate an end to the violence.
"We came here with Syria and the Syrian people on our mind, only while they came here with positions and posts on their mind," she said.
But the two sides' willingness to meet with Brahimi — even separately — gave some hope that negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides may bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are sensitive, said Friday that the peace conference had not collapsed and that Brahimi "still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together."
The Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles, lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion, which has been pulled apart by an influx of militants. Infighting among rebels has left 1,400 people dead in the past 20 days, according to activists.
Underscoring the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Assad around the area of eastern Ghuta, the British-based Syrian Observatory said Friday.
The rebels clashing against them included extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq group and the Levant, a hardline group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
Associated Press reporters Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Turkey; Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Lebanon; and Matthew Lee in Davos, Switzerland, contributed.
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