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Breakdown averted in Syrian talks as sides agree to meet

Activists protested at the United Nations office in Geneva where meetings were being held.

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Activists protested at the United Nations office in Geneva where meetings were being held.

GENEVA — The participants in the Syrian peace conference averted a collapse in the talks Friday, agreeing to meet in the same room Saturday for the first time.

Earlier, the government delegation had threatened to bolt, while the opposition complained that the government side was not fully committed to the framework of the talks.

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After a day of frantic negotiations, however, the UN special envoy to the talks announced that the two sides had agreed to meet. “Tomorrow we expect, and we’ve agreed, that we will meet in the same room,” the envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters.

It was unclear whether the sides would face each other in the meeting or sit separately, with Brahimi shuttling back and forth, in what are known as proximity talks.

UN officials had hoped to hold a face-to-face meeting between the government and the opposition Friday, the third day of talks aimed at ending Syria’s war. When that failed, Syrian government officials said they would leave if the meeting was not rescheduled for the next day.

At the same time, members of the opposition said the government delegation was divided, particularly on the question of discussing the formation of a transitional government.

“This is not a juggernaut,” said Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the opposition coalition. “There are serious splits in the government delegation.”

He said that every time the Syrian Foreign Ministry representatives said anything that indicated movement toward compromise, those directly representing President Bashar Assad countered with a harder line.

The government delegation and its supporters retorted that the opposition was shifting position, as plans seesawed about whether the two sides would sit down in the same room in the UN offices in Geneva.

The crux of the dispute is the protocol for the meeting, set out in a June 2012 agreement known as Geneva I. The opposition has demanded that the government formally confirm that it accepts the protocol, which calls for a fully empowered transitional governing body to be formed by “mutual consent.”

On Friday morning, the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, told reporters that the delegation was in Geneva to implement Geneva I, otherwise, he said, it would not have come.

But Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, told the BBC that, “By coming here we acknowledge the Geneva communiqué, but not all of it. It’s not a bible.”

In the news conference, Brahimi said the talks would proceed on the basis of the Geneva I communiqué, and that “the two parties know that every well, and accept it.”

Demonstrators held the flags of the Syrian opposition and signs reading “Your silence is killing children” outside the Palace of Nations, the UN headquarters here, as the talks went on inside.

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