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Syria

Opposition Syrian National Coalition agrees to attend Geneva 2 peace talks

Syria's main opposition group has agreed to attend internationally sponsored peace talks due to begin in Switzerland next Wednesday. The talks are aimed at finding a political solution to the three-year conflict.

Syria opposition to attend talks

A majority of the exiled Syrian National Coaliton voted in favor of taking part in the talks, the coalition's media office said on Saturday.

It said coalition delegates in a secret ballot in Istanbul voted to attend the Geneva talks by 58 votes to 14, with two abstentions and one blank vote.

The ballot result suggested that just 75 of the around 120 opposition delegates had taken part in the ballot.

"It was a tough vote," the head of the Coalition's media office, Khaled Saleh, told Reuters.

The "Geneva 2" talks will bring representatives from President Bashar al-Assad's government to the negotiating table on Wednesday in what has been billed as the most serious effort yet to end the conflict.

The planned encounter in the Swiss cities of Geneva and Montreux will be the first face-to-face meeting between government and rebel negotiatiors.

Talks long delayed

Syria's divided opposition coalition had faced intense pressure from Western and Arab sponsors to agree to take part in the talks, which have been delayed for many months.

SNC chairman Ahmad al-Jarba (pictured with coalition secretary-general Badr Jamous) said the umbrella group would take part at the Geneva talks with the sole aim of removing Assad from power.

"The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution... and first and foremost stripping the butcher (Assad) of all his powers," he said.

Rebel brigades had previously rejected Geneva - demanding the removal of Assad before talks.

Reacting to the ballot, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the National Coalition's decision provided a "small glimmer of hope" for Syria's people. His French counterpart Laurent Fabius called it a "courageous choice".

Aid reaches Damascus camp

Meanwhile food aid has entered the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus for the first time in four months, a Palestinian official and Syrian state media said. The delivery comes after reports that dozens of people in the camp have died of hunger and lack of medical aid.

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official Anwar Abdul Hadi confirmed the delivery to the AFP news agency and said it was made possible after an agreement was reached on Friday between Palestinian factions and rebels in the camp.

He said Saturday's delivery was a trial run and "further batches will be delivered successively from tomorrow." He also said a number of sick and injured people will be evacuated from the camp on Sunday with help from the aid group the Syrian Red Crescent.

Yarmouk camp is the largest of the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria where, up until December 2012, more than 160,000 refugees lived. However, after armed rebel groups entered the camp, most fled leaving behind some 20,000 people.

The delivery was the first time food aid has reached the Yarmouk refugee camp since September 2013 when President Bashar al-Assad's government troops tightened a siege around the camp.

Since then, numerous attempts by the UN and other organizations to bring aid to the camp have been thwarted amid reports that as many as 54 people have died in the camp of hunger or lack of medical care.

The delivery came one day after UN rights chief Navi Pillay said the obstruction of humanitarian aid by the government to civilians “may amount to a war crime.”

"Government forces and affiliated militias appear to be imposing collective punishment on the civilians in Yarmouk," Pillay said.

ccp/hc (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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