GENEVA (AP) — A second round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition bogged down quickly Monday in recriminations about who was responsible for escalating violence that has killed hundreds in the past few days and disrupted food aid for trapped civilians.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi held separate closed-door meetings in Geneva with the Syrian government and opposition delegations to try to set an agenda for the coming week. The first face-to-face meetings adjourned 10 days ago having achieved little beyond getting the warring sides into the same room. This time, there are no immediate plans to even sit at the same table.
"The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters following a 90-minute meeting with Brahimi. "It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to talk peace while it is killing our people in Syria."
The opposition insists the talks' aim is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace President Bashar Assad. The government delegation says that cannot happen before there is a halt to violence by "terrorists," a term authorities use to refer to the rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad stepping down was not on the agenda. "Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it," he told a reporter.
The increased violence on the ground provided ammunition for both sides. Extremist Islamic rebels overran a village in central Syria populated by Assad's Alawite minority, killing at least 40 people Sunday, activists said. Half of the victims in the attack in Maan were civilians and the rest were village fighters defending their homes, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Mekdad described the attack as a "massacre" of some 50 people, most of them women and children. "We cannot talk about a real and credible peace process before the killing and terrorism stops," he told journalists in Geneva.
Extremist Sunni Islamic fighters have played an increasingly prominent role among the rebel fighters, dampening the West's support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad. The government delegation capitalized on the Maan raid to bolster its claim that the three-year uprising against Assad is dominated by Islamic extremists.
Asked about the Maan killings earlier, Safi said the regime wants to shift the blame on others. "Yes there are violations by some gangs ...because of the political and security chaos but the primary responsibility lies on the regime," he said. He accused the government of carrying out "war crimes" by bombing civilians with makeshift barrel bombs — crude weapons packed with explosives, fuel and metal — that have wreaked havoc in opposition-held areas, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo and in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
In the first round of peace talks, Brahimi had pressed for an agreement on aid deliveries, hoping such confidence-building measures would build momentum. But even such small steps were not achieved. A deal was clinched last week for a three-day truce in rebel-held parts of Homs to secure the evacuation of hundreds of trapped civilians and the entry of humanitarian aid convoys. That effort was disrupted Saturday as trucks carrying supplies into Homs came under heavy fire. Both sides traded accusations over who was responsible.
The aid effort resumed Sunday, with more than 600 people evacuated from Homs. Violence this week has also disrupted U.N. food parcels destined for the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus.
More than 130,000 people have been killed in the war, activists say, and millions have forced to flee their homes.