• Syria talks begin without key figures

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    GENEVA: UN-mediated peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s conflict were scheduled to kick off Friday, but the absence of key opposition members threatens to derail the biggest diplomatic push yet to resolve the nearly five-year-old civil war.

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    The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, which met in Riyadh on Thursday, said the opposition group would not attend the negotiations in Geneva until an agreement is reached on aid entering besieged towns.

    The Committee was formed in December when the main Syrian political opposition and armed factions came together in the Saudi Arabian capital for an unprecedented bid at unity, after months of Saudi efforts.

    UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, in a video message to the Syrian people on Thursday, said the talks could be their country’s last chance for peace after a civil war that has seen more than 260,000 people killed and forced millions from their homes.

    He said that after several stalled peace processes, the Geneva talks “cannot fail.”

    Riad Hijab, coordinator of the High Negotiations Committee, said that aid access was a precondition of the group attending.

    “Tomorrow we won’t be in Geneva. We could go there, but we will not enter the negotiating room if our demands aren’t met,” he told Al-Arabiya television.

    A senior delegate of the High Negotiations Committee told AFP that a decision was expected on Friday on whether to attend the UN-brokered talks.

    A spokeswoman for the UN talks, Khawla Mattar, said that no postponement was planned.

    Western diplomats have piled pressure on the opposition to participate in the negotiations, which would be only the second dialogue between Syrians since the start of the conflict.

    The Committee has asked for “clarifications” after the UN          issued invitations to other opposition figures, and wants assurances from the international community that it will move to end regime attacks on civilians and allow humanitarian aid.

    France-based Middle East analyst Agnes Levallois said the opposition was growing increasingly frustrated that the question of President Bashar al-Assad’s fate, a key stumbling block in previous talks, was being put off.

    “Assad is feeling stronger and stronger so is being inflexible,” she said.

    Government forces have made major inroads into opposition-held territory since Russia starting backing Assad with air strikes in September.

    AFP

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