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Syria rebel groups rap 'biased' U.N. envoy as Geneva talks falter

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrian rebel groups accused the special U.N. Syria envoy of bias towards the Damascus government and urged opposition negotiators to toughen up at peace talks in Geneva, which are under strain from intensified fighting on the ground.

U.N. mediator on Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a meeting with the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) during Syria peace talks at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool

U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura reconvened indirect talks last week, saying a political transition would be the main topic in efforts to end Syria’s five-year-old civil war. More than 250,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

But just a few days into the new round, the negotiations appear shakier than ever with increased fighting across the country threatening to shred a tenuous truce deal. Deepening concerns, the government delegation has sought to steer the new round away from any discussion of transition.

A letter addressed to negotiators and signed by “armed revolutionary factions” urged the main opposition High Negotiations Committee to “take firm and decisive stances towards the half-solutions being propagated ... by the regime’s allies, and de Mistura”.

It also said international pledges to deliver aid, halt the bombing of residential areas and free prisoners had not been met. “We follow with great concern and outright rejection the moves of de Mistura, some of which show a total bias towards ... the demands of the regime and its allies,” the letter said.

In a meeting with the HNC on Friday, de Mistura floated the idea of President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power symbolically in exchange for the opposition’s nomination of three Syrian vice-presidents.

Diplomats and opposition officials sought to play down de Mistura’s suggestion, saying it was not his idea but rather one from unidentified experts and not considered serious. The proposal was subsequently dismissed outright by the opposition.

But the mere suggestion of Assad staying in power has further distracted from the crux of the talks. With both sides already trading barbs and fighting escalating anew in Syria, the focus appears to be shifting to simply keeping the opposition at the table rather than entering into substantive debate on transition.

“The opposition is split 50:50 on whether to stay or go,” said a senior Western diplomat.

“We’re telling them that they must not fall into the government’s trap because if they walk away, they will be held responsible and it will be difficult to return soon.”

The opposition says Assad must leave power and cannot be part of any transitional period.

Assad has rejected the idea of a transitional governing body, saying instead he could broaden the government to include what he described as opposition and independent figures.

“The transitional government will be a difficult task for both the government and the opposition parties,” Chinese special envoy Xie Xiaoyan told reporters. “But that doesn’t mean they should... leave the discussion and go back to the battleground.”

When asked whether the talks were on the verge of collapse, De Mistura told reporters on Monday: “They are continuing.”

Additional reporting Marina Depetris in Geneva and John Davision in Beirut; Editing by Mark Heinrich