Peace envoy Brahimi in talks with Syria's Assad
Published Wednesday 30/10/2013 (updated) 30/10/2013 20:48
Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Moqdad (left) and UN-Arab
League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi leave the Sheraton hotel in Damascus,
on Oct. 30, 2013 (AFP Louai Beshara)
DAMASCUS (AFP) -- UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met briefly with President Bashar Assad Wednesday, the third day of a Damascus visit aimed at bringing Syria's warring parties to the negotiating table.
The encounter came a day after the Red Crescent oversaw the evacuation of about 500 women, children and elderly civilians from a besieged town near Damascus, in an operation that saw rare cooperation between the regime, its opponents and the international community.
Brahimi has been traveling throughout the Middle East to drum up support for Geneva peace talks, and the Syrian leg of the tour is the most sensitive as he needs to persuade a wary regime and an increasingly divided opposition to attend.
During his last visit to Damascus in December, the Algerian envoy was criticized in the Syrian media for asking Assad if he intended to step down at the end of his presidential term in mid-2014.
His latest meeting with Assad lasted less than one hour, and no information has yet filtered out on the content of their talks.
Brahimi's spokeswoman only said the envoy was hopeful that Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syria's opposition, would take part in the proposed peace talks.
Envoy wants Saudi role
Brahimi "appreciates the role the kingdom can play in giving the peace process the push it needs," Khawla Matar told AFP.
On the eve of Wednesday's meeting, the regime said only Syrians can choose their future, rejecting Western and Arab demands the president step down.
"Syria will attend Geneva II based on the exclusive right of the Syrian people to choose their political future, to choose their leaders and to reject all forms of external intervention," Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told Brahimi, referring to the proposed talks in Switzerland.
He also said all statements about the country's future, especially "the one from London", were "infringements on the rights of the Syrian people" and "preconditions to the dialogue before it has even started."
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That was a reference to an Oct. 22 meeting at which Assad's opponents and countries that back them - including the United States - declared he had no future role to play in Syria.
Brahimi insisted the Geneva talks would be "between the Syrian parties" and that only Syrians would decide their future, the official SANA news agency reported.
The UN-Arab League envoy added there was agreement on "the importance of ending the violence, terrorism and respecting Syrian sovereignty," according to SANA.
More than 115,000 people have been killed in the 31-month armed uprising against the Assad regime triggered by his forces' bloody crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests.
The main opposition National Coalition has said it will refuse to attend any talks unless Assad's resignation is on the table, and some rebel groups have warned anyone who goes will be considered a traitor.
In a defiant interview broadcast this month, Assad himself cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying he will not negotiate with any group tied to the rebels or to foreign states.
The devastating war has triggered a massive humanitarian crisis as people have fled or become trapped by the spiraling violence.
On Tuesday some 500 women, children and elderly civilians were evacuated from Moadamiyet al-Sham, a town southwest of Damascus that the army has besieged for nearly a year, activists said.
Widespread malnutrition has been reported in the town, especially among children, because of a total blockade on the entry of food and other vital goods.
Television footage showed the evacuees clutching a few personal belongings as they streamed out of the town along a dusty avenue, with Red Crescent staff carrying one elderly man and assisting another too frail to walk alone.
"All sides, without exception, took part, including the opposition as represented by the National Coalition, the regime... and the international community," an opposition activist in Moadamiyet al-Sham said.
Moadamiyet al-Sham was the scene of one of the army's chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21, which killed hundreds of people.
In another measure of Syria's disintegration, the World Health Organization confirmed 10 polio cases in the northeastern province of Deir Ezzor, all of them in children under the age of two.