Syrian opposition group meets UN special envoy

Delegation demands improvements on humanitarian front in order to continue with political negotiations

GENEVA • A Saudi-backed Syrian opposition delegation met the United Nation's special envoy Staffan de Mistura for the first time yesterday demanding efforts to improve humanitarian conditions on the ground or they would shun political negotiations.

The meeting occurred when bombings claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants yesterday killed about 60 people near a revered Shi'ite shrine outside the Syrian capital Damascus.

"We only came to Geneva after receiving assurances and commitments and we have precise commitments on the fact there would be serious progress on the humanitarian situation," Ms Bassma Kodmani, who is part of the opposition negotiating delegation, told a news conference. "We can't start political negotiations until we have those gestures (in place)."

Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, said yesterday that the government "wants to put an end to the bloodshed", accusing the opposition of being "not serious".

The delegation representing the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) is seeking a halt to attacks on civilian areas, the release of detainees and a lifting of blockades. The measures were mentioned in a Security Council resolution approved last month that endorsed the peace process for Syria.

Ms Kodmani said assurances had been given to them by Mr de Mistura, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and United States Secretary of State John Kerry. She said that since impetus for the talks had started, however, Syrian government forces and their ally Russia seemed "deaf" to those demands, with military action increasing.

Mr Salim al-Muslat, spokesman for the HNT, said that they were ready to move 10 steps if the government delegation moved just one, but he also believed that there was little intention by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make any concessions.

"The regime did not come to find a solution, but buy more time to kill more Syrian people," he said.

Mr Farah Atassi, another opposition member, said it was too early to say how long the delegation would remain in Geneva.

However, Mr de Mistura expressed optimism yesterday following the informal meeting with the opposition group.

"I am optimistic and determined because it's an historic occasion not to be missed," he told reporters as he left a Geneva hotel after the meeting.

The meeting took place outside the UN's European headquarters, where talks on ending Syria's nearly five-year conflict have been scheduled.

As the talks took place yesterday, three bomb blasts near the Shi'ite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab killed about 60 people, including 25 Shi'ite fighters .

State news agency SANA said the first blast was caused by a car bomb that detonated at a bus station near the shrine.

It said two suicide bombers then detonated their explosive belts when people gathered around at the scene.

In a statement circulated on social media, the ISIS group said two of its members "hit the most important stronghold of Shi'ite militias in Damascus".

Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said the attacks were prompted by "terror groups" who sought to"raise their morale after a string of defeats" by the army.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Syrian opposition group meets UN special envoy'. Print Edition | Subscribe