Syrian rebels 'refuse to negotiate directly' with regime
Syrian rebels began peace talks with the war-torn country's government on Monday in Kazakhstan's capital Astana, but refused to negotiate face-to-face in the first session.
The talks had been billed as the first time armed rebel groups were due to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the conflict erupted in 2011.
But rebel spokesman Yehya al-Aridi told AFP the opposition backed out of the first round of direct talks because of the regime's continued bombardment and attacks on a flashpoint area near Damascus.
"The first negotiation session will not be face-to-face because the government hasn't committed until now to what it signed in the December 30 agreement," Aridi said, referring to the fragile ceasefire deal brokered by Turkey and Russia.
It remained unclear whether the two sides would negotiate directly later.
Several rounds of failed talks in Geneva saw political opposition figures take the lead in negotiating with the Damascus regime.
But in Astana, the 14-member opposition delegation is composed solely of rebels leading the armed uprising, with members of the political opposition serving as advisors.
The two delegations entered a luxurious meeting room for opening statements by the Kazakh foreign minister, before the closed-door talks began.
The negotiators have been welcomed by all parties in the war, but the two sides arrived with apparently divergent ideas on their aim.
Rebel groups say the talks will focus on bolstering the ceasefire, but Assad has insisted rebels lay down their arms in exchange for an amnesty deal.
Damascus has also called for a "comprehensive" political solution to a conflict that has killed more than 310,000 and displaced more than half of Syria's population.
"The government delegation took part in the Astana meeting on the basis that the agenda would include reinforcing the ceasefire and discussing the principles of a political solution," a source close to the government delegation told AFP.
The source said the Turks, Russians, and Iranians – joint organisers of the talks – were rushing to put together a final statement that the rebels and regime were expected to sign on Tuesday.