Syrian opposition threatens boycott of Geneva talks after attacks in Damascus

Published February 1st, 2016 - 09:00 GMT

The Syrian opposition bloc threatened Sunday to boycott UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the country's civil war, while in Syria 63 people were reported killed in suicide attacks in a Damascus suburb.

Daesh carried out the double suicide attack in southern Damascus in the mainly Shia district of Sayyida Zeinab, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The dead included 29 civilians and 25 pro-regime militiamen in the attack near a security checkpoint, while nine bodies could not be identified, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the attack killed 50 civilians, and described it as an attempt by "terrorist groups" to sabotage the Geneva talks.

Daesh militants claimed responsibility for the attack in an online statement, which dpa could not independently verify.

The al-Qaeda splinter group, which rules large swaths of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, previously claimed responsibility for similar attacks targeting Shia in both countries.

Sayyida Zeinab is a heavily populated lower-income suburb of Damascus clustered around a Shia shrine of the same name. It became a magnet for Shia refugees from the war in Iraq after 2003.

When the Syrian conflict escalated, Lebanese and Iraqi Shia militias who joined the government side initially portrayed their involvement as a move to defend the shrine.

Representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, now in Geneva for indirect peace talks, accused each other of involvement in Sunday's attack.

World powers backing the Geneva negotiations are seeking a political process to resolve the Syrian conflict, estimated to have killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 11 million from their homes since 2011, according to the United Nations.

A wide gap persists between both sides in the talks, with the main opposition bloc, the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNG), saying Sunday it might withdraw from the Geneva talks unless pressure is placed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, Russia, to stop bombing rebel-held areas inside Syria.

"In view of insistence on the part of the regime and its allies on violating rights of the Syrian people, there will be no justification for the HNC delegation to remain in Geneva," said Riad Hijab, head of the Saudi-based panel.

In an online statement, he said the committee "may find itself compelled to withdraw its negotiating delegation."

Hijab's threat came as the HNC team held a first meeting at its hotel in Geneva with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.

"The short informal meeting was useful in addressing issues relating to the intra-Syrian talks," said de Mistura's spokeswoman, Khawla Mattar, without giving details.

De Mistura had met Friday with the government delegation, kicking off the long-delayed talks.

In Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped lead the diplomatic effort to establish the talks, said the process was entering "a pivotal phase."

"In light of what is at stake in these talks, I appeal to both sides to make the most of this moment - to seize the opportunity for serious negotiations - to negotiate in good faith, with the goal of making concrete, measurable progress in the days immediately ahead," he said in a video.

"The world is hoping that both sides will move quickly to meet the needs of millions of desperate Syrians, to reduce the pressure on neighboring countries, to reduce the levels of migration, and to help restore peace and stability."

Kerry said the key immediate goals are a nationwide ceasefire and a path to a political transition for Syria.

"While battlefield dynamics can affect negotiating leverage, in the end there is no military solution to this conflict," he said. "Without negotiations, the bloodshed will drag on until the last city is reduced to rubble and virtually every home, every form of infrastructure, and every semblance of civilization is destroyed."

The opposition has repeatedly said that it wanted to discuss purely humanitarian issues in Syria, such as lifting sieges and ending bombardment of civilian areas, before engaging in any political negotiations.

"It is important for us to see food goes to children who starve, to see women stay safe, those women in jails are released. These steps are important to us," HNC spokesman Salem Muslit said at a press conference Sunday in Geneva.

"We want to see a halt to all these crimes against civilians."

Shortly after, Bashar al-Jaafari, who heads the government delegation in Geneva, balked at the opposition's demands.

"We are here for indirect talks without any preconditions," al-Jaafari told reporters.

The UN said the talks would continue Monday with a morning meeting with the government delegation, followed by an evening meeting with the opposition team.

By Jan Kuhlmann and Ramadan Al-Fatash

Editor's note: This article has been edited from the source material

© 2021 dpa GmbH

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