Syria peace conference opens with rifts over Assad

Thursday, 23 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

MONTREUX, Switzerland REUTERS: Syria’s Government and Opposition, meeting face to face for the first time at a UN peace conference, angrily spelled out their hostility on Wednesday as world powers also restated contrasting views on the future of President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Assad of war crimes that recalled Nazi Germany and demanded the Syrian government delegation at the one-day meeting in Switzerland immediately sign up to an international plan for a transition of 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. The United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the conference which UN officials hope can launch further negotiations at Geneva, also revealed their differences over Assad in speeches that began what will be a day of formal presentations. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who exchanged sharp words with Moualem when the Syrian Minister spoke for more than three times the 10-minute limit Ban had set, opened proceedings at Montreux on Lake Geneva by calling for immediate access to humanitarian aid for areas under siege. “After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of fragile but real hope,” Ban said, urging both sides to reach a comprehensive settlement based on the UN Geneva Communique, under which world powers called in 2012 for a transitional government to oversee change in Syria. “Great challenges lie ahead but they are not insurmountable,” he added. Western powers and Russia have sought to set aside their own sharp differences over whether Assad must be forced to make way for an interim administration and have backed the conference as a way to stop the spread of communal and sectarian violence spreading across the region. Moscow and Washington differ, however, over whether the 2012 accord - known as Geneva 1 - means that Assad must step down immediately. Western powers say that it does. The new conference, known as Geneva 2, has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even agreeing to be in the same room as Assad’s delegates.