Syria's civil war foes meet for first time, focus on aid peace talks

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SummarySyria's civil war foes held their first face-to-face meeting on Saturday at the start of peace talks to end...

Syria's civil war foes held their first face-to-face meeting on Saturday at the start of peace talks to end nearly three years of conflict which has killed 130,000 people and destabilised the wider Middle East.

After a day of delay and fierce recrimination, government and opposition delegates faced each other across a negotiating table at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva in the presence of international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.

The two parties entered and left the room through separate doors, sitting in silence for half an hour while Brahimi set out his plans - an immediate focus on humanitarian aid which diplomats have described as a confidence-building measure, followed by political talks to resolve the conflict.

"He told us this is a political conference ... based on Geneva 1," opposition delegate Anas al-Abdah said, referring to a June 2012 declaration calling for the establishment in Syria of a transitional governing body by mutual agreement.

President Bashar al-Assad's government delegation said it broadly accepted Geneva 1, but reiterated its longstanding opposition to idea of a transitional body, saying it was inappropriate and unnecessary.

"We have complete reservations regarding it," Information Minister Omran Zoabi said, comparing the proposal to the transitional government set up in Iraq by U.S. occupation forces after they toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"Syria is a state with institutions," he added. "A transitional governing body ... happens where the state is in disintegration, or has no institutions."

The opposition has insisted that the government delegation accept the principle of setting up the transitional body, saying it must bring an end to Assad's rule. The president says only Syrian voters can choose their ruler and that he may well stand again in an election due to be held by June this year.

Delegates reconvened at around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT), a U.N. spokeswoman said, and were expected to discuss a possible deal on a short ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into besieged rebel-held areas in Homs.

"We will focus over the next two days on humanitarian conditions and letting in food to the besieged areas," opposition delegation spokesman Louay Safi told reporters.

"We will also discuss the release of

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