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Syria

Two sides trade blame at opening of latest Syria peace talks

A second round of peace talks between Syria's regime and opposition has begun with the two sides trading blame for deadly violence. Hundreds of people have been killed and food aid has been disrupted in recent days.

UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi held separate closed-door meetings with Syrian government and opposition representatives at the latest round of talks in Geneva on Monday. It was the first face-to-face meeting between the two sides after the previous round of talks ended 10 days ago with little agreement.

"The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people," opposition spokesman Louay Safi (pictured) told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with Brahimi. "It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to talk peace while it is killing our people in Syria. This must stop. We asked the international community to do something about it."

After one meeting, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad condemned the reported massacre of civilians by Islamist rebel forces when they overran the central village of Maan on Sunday.

"The number of those killed yesterday by the terrorist groups is over 50," Mekdad told reporters, adding that "four disabled people were slaughtered like sheep."

The Britain-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 21 civilians had been killed in the village, which is populated by Alawites, the same Islamic sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs. A further 20 village fighters were killed trying to protect their homes, the Observatory added.

Safi, who presented Brahimi with a 1,000-page report on regime violence, said the regime was using the Maan attack to shift blame onto others.

"Yes there are violations by some gangs ... because of the political and security chaos, but the primary responsibility lies on the regime," he said, adding that the opposition's main goal in Geneva was to form a transitional governing body.

Mekdad said the regime would not discuss whether Assad might step down. "Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it," he said.

Russia, meanwhile, has proposed that the UN and Syrian factions join Moscow and Washington for collective peace talks in Geneva.

"Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible," Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. The US and Russia have supported different factions in the nearly three-year conflict, but called jointly last June for peace talks that would bring government and the opposition to the table.

Food aid disrupted

Brahimi pushed for an agreement on aid deliveries during the first round of talks. A deal was finalized last week with a three-day ceasefire in rebel-controlled areas of Homs to allow the evacuation of hundreds of civilians and delivery of humanitarian aid.

The aid effort was temporarily disrupted Saturday when convoys carrying supplies into Homs came under attack. The deliveries resumed on Sunday, with the evacuation of more than 600 people.

On Monday, the Syrian Red Crescent said on Twitter a further 300 people had been evacuated from Homs.

dr/mkg (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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