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Sign of hope after stumbling start at Syria peace talks

U.N. mediator for Syria Staffan de Mistura delivers a statement after the opening of the Syrian peace talks at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 29, 2016.

Reuters/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA -- The main Syrian opposition group says it will send a small delegation to talk with U.N. officials at peace talks in Geneva.

A member of the Higher Negotiating Committee, Farah Atassi, says the delegation is coming "not to negotiate" but to talk to U.N. officials after receiving reassurances from the organization.

She did not say how many members would come, adding only that they will arrive Saturday.

Atassi spoke at a Geneva hotel not far from the U.N. offices where U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura and Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari were meeting.

Ja'afari, the head of the government delegation, walked out of that meeting without commenting to the waiting press corps.

The indirect peace talks aim to resolve Syria's five-year conflict. The talks are the first since two rounds of negotiations collapsed in 2014. Syria's conflict has killed more than 250,000 people, displaced millions and sent hundreds of thousands as refugees to Europe.

The main opposition delegation has said it will not participate in the talks without an end to the bombardment of civilians by Russian and government forces and a lifting of sieges in rebel-held areas.

The meetings are part of a process outlined in a U.N. resolution last month that envisages an 18-month timetable for a political transition in Syria, including the drafting of a new constitution and elections.

The opposition boycott was a blow to the U.N.'s attempt to bring representatives of President Bashar Assad's government and his opponents together for the first time in two years.

Disputes are ongoing over which opposition parties will attend, with the Higher Negotiating Committee, or HNC, coming under criticism for including the militant Army of Islam group, which controls wide areas near the Syrian capital, Damascus, and is considered a terrorist organization by the Syrian government and Russia.

Earlier on Friday, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi reflected the sense of chaos and confusion surrounding the beginning of peace negotiations when he told reporters at a briefing that "I don't have a time, I don't have the exact location, and I can't tell you anything about the delegation."

Ahmad Ramadan, a senior official with the Syrian National Coalition, which is part of the HNC, had said the opposition will boycott the talks until it receives assurances on the implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions on lifting the sieges and halting bombardment of civilians in Syria.

"There cannot be any negotiations as long as the humanitarian issues have not been discussed or implemented," he said.

Ramadan said that de Mistura sent a letter on Thursday to the head of the HNC, Riad Hijab, which was deemed unsatisfactory. He and another opposition figure, Khaled Nasser, said the U.N. envoy wrote that the opposition's demands were reasonable and that humanitarian issues should be "above negotiations," but that he was powerless to implement them himself, adding that negotiations were the best way to force everyone to implement those resolutions.

In Syria, the official Tishrin newspaper boasted that the no-show by the Saudi and Turkey-backed opposition in Geneva "reflects the collective flight of terrorist groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey from the political table, following their collapses on the battlefield."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the moderate opposition was not attending the talks because Russia continues to bomb opposition-held areas in Syria, and that it is a "betrayal" to the moderate opposition to ask them to attend without a cease-fire.

A Western diplomat in close contact with the SNC told The Associated Press in Geneva that the HNC's "main message to us has been, 'while we are under sustained attack by Russia and the regime and other states and militants and other groups we cannot justify to Syrians why we are going.'"

"We tell them the reason to come here is not to hand the Assad regime a propaganda victory," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the opposition.

Opposition figures from outside the HNC are in Geneva, but they were invited as advisers. The HNC is supposed to be the main opposition group in the talks.

But a leading Syrian opposition figure who is not part of the HNC and is currently in Geneva hinted that his team will be part of the talks as a second opposition delegation.

"The presence of three delegations expresses the will of the (U.N.) Security Council who called for a delegation representing all parties of the opposition," former Syrian deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, said in an interview with the AP.

Jamil added that in their talks with the government the priority will be to allow aid into besieged areas and that all Syrians unite to "fight the terrorism represented by Nusra and Daesh." He was referring to al Qaeda's branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front and using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

De Mistura said Thursday that Geneva peace talks are "an opportunity not to be missed."