GENEVA (AP) — Delegations from Syria's government and the Western-backed opposition hoping to overthrow it will face each other "in the same room" Saturday for the first time ever, a U.N. mediator said.
The mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, met separately with the two groups for two days, trying to broker peace — or at least a measure of common ground — in a civil war that has left at least 130,000 people dead.
"We are going to meet tomorrow. I hope that it will be a good beginning, and that we will continue until the end of next week," he said.
The announcement from Brahimi came after Syria's government vowed to leave Switzerland if "serious talks" did not begin by Saturday. The opposition, which agreed to the peace talks only under intense diplomatic pressure, had been reluctant to sit face-to-face with the government it insists must yield power. Direct talks planned for Friday between the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition had been scrapped.
The Geneva peace conference aims to stem the violence that has forced millions to flee, destabilized the region and turned Syria into a rallying cry for al-Qaida-inspired militants.
Direct negotiations are seen by many diplomats as the best hope for an eventual end to Syria's three-year civil war. Up until now, both sides had spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting, calling each other terrorists and blaming each other for driving a once-thriving country into ruin.
As the peace talks wobbled, fighting raged Friday throughout parts of Syria, including near Damascus, the capital. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists.
Protesters in several Syrian towns demonstrated against the Geneva peace talks, saying Assad had shown with years of military strikes against his people that he favors violence over negotiations.
"We are bombed and nobody cares," sang one demonstrator in the town of Sabqa. "The Assad regime doesn't understand the language of dialogue. We will remove this criminal regime by force," read one sign.
Demonstrators in the northern town of Darayan held up another English-language sign reading, "Time is blood" — an indication that some felt Assad may be playing for time with the peace talks.
But the two sides' willingness to meet with Brahimi — even separately — gave some hope that negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides may bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires.
The Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles, lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion, which has been pulled apart by an influx of militants. Infighting among rebels has left 1,400 people dead in the past 20 days, according to activists.
Underscoring the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Assad around the area of eastern Ghuta, the British-based Syrian Observatory said Friday.
The rebels clashing against them included extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq group and the Levant, a hardline group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
Associated Press reporters Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Turkey; Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Lebanon; and Matthew Lee in Davos, Switzerland, contributed.
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