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Syria

First round of Syria peace talks conclude, Brahimi proposes prompt restart

Special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said he is hopeful of a solution to Syria's civil war after the first round of talks in Geneva, saying he saw "a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides recognize."

The UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, suggested a February 10 restart to the Geneva II peace talks, after the first round concluded on Friday. Brahimi said the opposition had agreed to this date, but that the Syrian government delegation had asked to report back to Damascus before committing.

"They didn't tell me that they are thinking of not coming. On the contrary, they said that they would come but they needed to check with their capital," Brahimi said of the government delegation. The week of talks in Switzerland had yielded only "a modest beginning," according to Brahimi, "but it is a modest beginning on which we can build."

Expectations were always low for the first round of talks, conducted more than two years into Syria's domestic conflict after an estimated 130,000 deaths in the fighting. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 1,870 people died in Syria during the negotiations in Geneva.

"The gap between the two sides remains wide, there is no use pretending otherwise. During our discussion, I observed a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides recognize," Brahimi told reporters.

Keeping the talks alive

One minor agreement that the talks failed to yield was a deal to allow aid convoys into Homs, Syria's third-most populous city that is largely held by opposition forces, where thousands of civilians are trapped without food or medicine.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government and opposition barely budged from their most crucial positions: the opposition continued to call for a transitional administration and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, while the government sought a focus on "terrorism" - its cover-all term for rebel fighters.

The talks also concluded amid a dispute between Washington and Moscow over Syria's chemical weapons disarmament program. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that the US, which has been largely supportive of the rebels, "is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons precursor material on time with the schedule that was agreed to."

The Russian Interfax news agency quoted the head of the Foreign Ministry's security and disarmament department, Mikhail Ulyanov, as saying the US was applying pressure although "there is absolutely no need for it."

"We see that the Syrians are approaching the fulfillment of their obligations seriously and in good faith. We see no need to urge them on or force them into an overly strict framework," Ulyanov was quoted as saying.

This deal for the government in Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons materials to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, brokered by the US and Russia, came as the US was publicly discussing possible military action in Syria.

msh/lw (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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