Syria peace talks focus on power transfer, aid

Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — Tense negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition focused on the transfer of power and helping besieged parts of the central city of Homs as they entered their fifth day Tuesday.

There has been little progress so far toward resolving a key stumbling block over whether President Bashar Assad should step aside and transfer power to a transitional government.

Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition's negotiating team, told The Associated Press on Tuesday the transition specified in the June 2012 accord from the first round of Geneva peace talks remains "our main priority at the moment."

But he said negotiators would also raise the issue of bringing humanitarian aid convoys to Homs, adding "the regime is still insisting on its systematic starvation policy."

The focus on Homs and release of detainees are meant as confidence-building measures. A tentative agreement was reached in Geneva at the weekend for the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in. Central Homs has been under siege for nearly two years.

In a statement released Tuesday, Gov. Talal Barrazi said police, paramedics and members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are ready to arrange the evacuation and "we are waiting for the U.N.'s response." But U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said security problems are delaying the evacuation.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program, told reporters that trucks are on standby to deliver food and help those who choose to be evacuated, but added, "We need that all security conditions be met to allow this interagency convoy to go,"

"This convoy cannot be a fig leaf only. We need access to all parts of Syria, all parts of the people in need," she said.

A complication in getting aid to and evacuating people from Homs is that the negotiators have limited influence over the armed groups that have gained control as Syria's uprising since March 2011 slowly evolved in an insurgency.

Louay Safi, a member of the opposition's negotiating team, said the opposition proposed at the meeting Tuesday lifting the siege by rebels of three towns and villages. They are the Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo province and the Damascus suburb of Adra, which is mixed. He said the rebels had besieged them because they considered they were being used by government forces as a "launching pad" to attack Aleppo.

He said there has been no progress on Homs because of concerns the people who leave the city would not have sufficient protection.

Safi said the opposition also put on the table a proposal for "a democratic, pluralist" government but objected to an offer by the Assad government to "displace" people from Homs to another area.

"You can't starve people and then ask them to move to new place. You have to allow food and medicine to go in," he said.

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