PARIS/GENEVA • Syria's warring sides prepared for fresh peace talks after locking horns over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad, with the regime insisting his ouster was a "red line" while the opposition vowed to see him go - dead or alive.
The United Nations-brokered indirect negotiations are due to start in Geneva today in the latest push to end Syria's five-year conflict, which has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
Government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari arrived yesterday in Geneva, where delegates from the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), are already preparing.
A fragile Feb 27 truce brokered by the United States and Russia has largely held, despite each side accusing the other of violations.
US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Mr Assad's regime and its allies including Russia against exploiting the tenuous ceasefire in Syria, which would undermine the peace process.
"If the regime and its backers think they can test boundaries, diminish their compliance in certain areas, or act in ways that call into question their commitment to the cessation - without serious consequences for the progress we have made - they are mistaken," Mr Kerry said yesterday, after talks with his European allies in Paris.
He said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's remarks about excluding any discussion at the Geneva talks about the removal of Mr Assad were "clearly trying to disrupt the process... (he was) clearly trying to send a message of deterrence to others".
"The fact is, (Assad's) strongest sponsors Russia and Iran have both adopted... an approach which dictates that there must be a political transition and that we must have a presidential election at some time," Mr Kerry added.
The HNC has repeatedly called for Mr Assad's departure as a prerequisite for any deal.
"We believe that the transitional period should start with the fall, or death, of Bashar al-Assad," said chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush. "It cannot start with the presence of the regime, or the head of this regime still in power."
However, key challenges remain, including the holding of elections within 18 months and the shape of any new government.
There have also been questions about how any deal would be felt on Syria's battlefields, where many are competing for territory.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS