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Syria Peace Talks Start Amid Acrimony

Smoke rises from an Aleppo bus station hit by what activists said was an air stike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on January 21.
The UN-backed peace conference on Syria is beginning its second day in Switzerland on January 23 with no signs from the warring parties of willingness to compromise on bringing an end the country's civil war.

The first day of the internationally-backed Syrian peace talks on January 22 was marked by acrimony, with the Syrian government rejecting demands that President Bashar al-Assad leave power to clear the way for a transitional government.

The meeting in the Swiss city of Montreux started amid reports of fresh fighting in Syria, including government air strikes on rebel positions and more infighting between Islamist extremists and more moderate rebels.

The United States and the Syrian opposition told the conference that the Assad regime had lost its legitimacy by carrying out attacks on the Syrian people and must step down.

This was categorically rejected by Syrian government representatives.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem accused terrorists and foreign governments of working to destroy Syria.

During his remarks, a combative Muallem also rejected repeated requests from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to cut short his speech.

The government and opposition representatives are scheduled to hold their first direct talks on January 24.

UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had received indications that the two sides could start discussing issues including humanitarian aid, prisoner exchanges, and local cease-fires.

Representatives from some 40 international organizations and countries attended the meeting, including Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, which backs the Syrian government.

Notably absent from the meeting was another leading Syrian regime ally, Iran, which has supplied Damascus with political and military support.

UN chief Ban withdrew his invitation to Iran to attend the Swiss talks after Tehran declined to explicitly and publicly back the formation of a transitional government.

In remarks on January 22, Ban urged the warring parties to seize the opportunity for peace. He acknowledged, however, that the sides have serious obstacles to overcome to end war that has lasted nearly three years and which is believed to have resulted in the deaths of more than 130,000 people.

"Ending this war and making peace will be hard," ban said. "We have taken a first small step here in Montreux. We will take another step on Friday [January 24] when the two Syrian parties sit down to talk. We have a difficult road ahead but it can be done and it must be done."

Earlier, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi ruled out the possibility of President Assad transferring power in any deal with the opposition.

He accused supporters of the opposition of spreading misinformation. The Syrian government describes the conflict as a battle against Sunni extremist terrorists.

''Some foreign ministers today who spoke are taking part in misleading the world and the international community and they are endorsing this misinformation." Zohbi said. "A big part of what was said today was either lies, or unjust accusations, or lack of data and information.''

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged Iran's influence and said he was hopeful Tehran could still play a role in negotiations. But he urged Iran to line up with most of the international community and back negotiations toward a transitional government.

"Yes, Iran certainly does have an ability to be able to help, to make a difference," Kerry said. "We hope that they will decide to be constructive and to make a decision to operate in a way going forward that can allow them to do so. There are plenty of ways that that door can be opened in the next weeks and months. And my hope is that they will want to join in a constructive solution."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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