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Syrian antagonists, at table for 1st time

In painstakingly choreographed encounters, Syria's government and opposition faced each other for the first time Saturday, buffered by a U.N. mediator hoping to guide them to a resolution of the country's devastating civil war.

The antagonists sat at the same table for nearly three hours, but didn't address each other directly — and by design avoided the contentious issue of who will lead the country. They entered through separate doors and, outside the walls of the United Nations, had little but criticism for each other.

No tangible progress was reported, but the mere fact the meeting was held represented what the mediator called a "half-step" toward peace. Unresolved was the fate of Homs, a city at the core of the uprising against President Bashar Assad that has been under siege for 20 months.

The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the peace conference would continue Sunday, focusing on humanitarian aid — the one topic the Syrian government and the opposition could agree to discuss. Brahimi said if parallel negotiations succeeded within Syria, Homs could see an aid delivery by Monday.

"We haven't achieved much, but we are continuing," Brahimi said after about three hours spent seated midway between the two sides. "The situation is very difficult and very, very complicated, and we are moving not in steps, but half-steps."

Sitting face to face at a U-shaped table and separated by Brahimi, Assad's delegation and the Syrian National Coalition avoided directly touching on the war dividing them — or discussing Assad himself. They spoke only to Brahimi, and not to each other.

"One is on the left and one on right and they face one another and they talk to each other — through me, to one another," he said. "This is what happens in civilized discussions... I think it's a good beginning."

He said the government's continuing practice of dropping bombs filled with crude explosives on civilian areas "hasn't come under discussion."

The peace conference intended to forge a path out of the civil war that has killed 130,000 people has been on the verge of collapse since it was first conceived 18 months ago. On Saturday, the talks avoided the main issue of Assad's future, with both sides appearing to soften their approach after days of escalating rhetoric.

The coalition agreed to the Geneva talks only if the focus was on an end to the Assad dynasty, while the Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism — disputing any claims that it had agreed to the talks' stated goal of a transitional government.

Louay Safi, of the coalition, described the talks as "consultations — it's not negotiations."

"It wasn't easy for us to sit with the delegation that represents the killers in Damascus, but we did it for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of the Syrian children," said Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition's representatives. He said everyone remained calm during the first brief meeting at which only Brahimi spoke.

Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment.

First on the agenda was the proposed cease-fire in the city of Homs, Syria's No. 3 city. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels. The city had a pre-war population of 1 million, but most residents have since fled.

The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011 after Assad responded to largely peaceful protests by unleashing the military. A homegrown rebellion transformed into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.

"Those who talk about ... Assad are talking about removing the man who is leading the war against terrorism," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said just before the talks started.

Russia and the U.S. have taken opposite sides in the war, with Moscow selling Assad military hardware and using its influence on the U.N. Security Council, where as a permanent member it has a veto. Washington has hesitated to send weapons, fearing they will fall into the hands of al-Qaida-inspired militants who dominate some factions of the rebellion.

Complicating any truce efforts, a medley of rebel groups fight from Homs and nearby opposition-held areas, ranging from al-Qaida hardline extremists to conservative Muslim brigades, to the more secular fighters of the Free Syrian Army. They are mostly holed up in or near the old city.

By Saturday afternoon, there was no sign of violence halting in Homs, nor had humanitarian aid entered rebel-held areas blockaded by Assad-loyal forces, said a Homs-based activist and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist identified himself by pseudonym, Firas Homsi, as is typical for those who fear reprisal.

Homsi said there were about 800 Syrian families still in the old city, under blockade for the past 20 months.

"Our situation here is very bad. There's no food and we are using expired medicine," said Homsi, who had heard rumours of a truce, but saw no evidence of it.

Assad's forces and — to a lesser extent — rebel groups have blockaded enemy areas, punishing the poorest and most vulnerable civilians for the gunmen in their midst.

Asked about accusations that the coalition made up mostly of exiles lacks influence with fighters on the ground, al-Abdeh said fighters in Homs had agreed to abide by any agreements reached in Geneva.

Any agreement in Homs would do little to affect the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. A quarter of the country's population has been displaced, taking refuge from the fighting in camps across the borders or within Syria. The country, which officially eradicated polio in the 1990s, has had 17 cases of the disease caused largely by lack of immunizations. Its economy has collapsed.

The opposition — and its Western supporters, including the U.S. — blame Assad and say he must go. Assad, however, has hinted that he may just run again as president this year in elections his family has won since 1971. The premise of the peace talks is a transitional government, but the opposition and government disagree on what that means.

"We started to talk about humanitarian issues as an introduction," Brahimi said, "so that people get used to talking to each other, so that when we get to the more difficult subjects it may be easier."

The Canadian Press

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