GENEVA (AP) — Syrian peace talks appeared bogged down Tuesday, with the U.N. mediator acknowledging little progress has been achieved and the two sides failing even to agree on an agenda to move negotiations forward.
Following a three hour, face-to-face meeting, U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters "we are not making much progress." "We need cooperation from both sides here and lot of support from outside," he added.
In Washington, President Barack Obama agreed that the talks were far from achieving their goal of ending a civil war that has claimed 130,000 lives, destroyed the country and threatens to destabilize the whole Middle East.
"There's enormous frustration here," Obama said at a joint news conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande. Talks between President Bashar Assad's government and the pro-Western opposition began last month, then adjourned after a week, resuming Monday after a 10-day break. But a frustrated Brahimi said the current round was proving "as laborious as it was the first week."
The Assad government wants the talks to focus on fighting "terrorism." The opposition wants to talk about a transition government to replace Assad. Brahimi has proposed discussing both in parallel but with apparently no success.
"I'm not sure whether I can impose an agenda on people who don't want to, you know," Brahimi said. "How can you, put a gun on their heads? You know, it is their country. This is a huge responsibility they have."
Each side blamed the other for the impasse. "Clearly there has been no progress today," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters, blaming the government for blocking a common agenda. "These people are not here to come up with a political solution, but they're insisting on killing people in Syria to maintain the rule of the one person and dictatorship," he said.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad blamed the opposition for "another lost day." "This group of opposition, the coalition, is insisting to waste your and our time," he said. "Today they wasted all the time discussing nothing, saying that there is no terrorism in Syria."
With no sign of movement, attention was directed at a meeting planned in Geneva on Friday between Brahimi, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs. U.N. officials played down the significance, saying that as co-sponsors of the peace talks the Russians and Americans confer periodically with the U.N.
Monzer Akbik, a senior member of the Syrian opposition delegation, raised the possibility that the delegations may meet separately Friday with the U.S. and Russian officials. But Mekdad objected to the notion that the two outside powers might try to intervene in the negotiations.
"If this meeting is between the Russians and Americans and the U.N., they are free of course to meet," he said. "But we stress ... that any dialogue, discussion or negotiation must be between the Syrian sides only because they are the ones concerned with such a dialogue."
In Syria, the government said Tuesday it had allowed 111 men of fighting age to leave rebel-held areas of Homs after they were questioned and cleared of rebel links, state media said. Since Friday, 1,151 civilians, mostly women, children and elderly have been evacuated from the city, Syria's third largest. Homs has been under government siege for more than a year.
The U.N. child agency said at least 500 children among those brought out of the city's rebel-held area. UNICEF said its staff reported the children were "terrified, frail and emaciated" when they left the city.
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Geneva and Robert H. Reid in Berlin contributed to this report.