January 29, 2016 / 7:54 PM / 4 years ago

U.N. says expects Syria talks with opposition on Sunday

People demonstrate against the Syrian regime ahead of the start of the Syrian Peace talks outside the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura hopes to talk with the Syrian opposition delegation on Sunday, he said on Friday, and the main opposition body said it had agreed to travel to Geneva to meet him.

The opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC) has been meeting in Riyadh for several days to debate whether to join the talks or insist the government of President Bashar al-Assad first stop bombing civilian areas and allow in humanitarian aid.

“They’ve raised an important point of their concern, they would like to see a gesture from the government authorities regarding some kind of improvement for the people of Syria during the talks, for instance release of prisoners, or some lifting of sieges,” de Mistura said.

But he added this was a human rights point and “not even an issue to negotiate”, and had strongly suggested the best way to get such measures implemented would be to start negotiating in Geneva, by proxy or directly.

The HNC spokesman said the decision to go to Geneva followed a phone call from the U.S. Secretary of State and guarantees that their demands would be met.

The Geneva talks are the first attempt in two years at a diplomatic solution to a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people. The previous talks in 2014 failed partly because Syria’s government insisted on discussing “terrorism” before anything else, a label that it applied to all its opponents.

De Mistura said the government delegation, led by Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, had again brought up terrorism in the first session on Friday. But he indicated he would not take up that argument, saying it should be discussed by the U.N. Security Council.

De Mistura said the talks would follow his clear instructions from the Security Council, which meant focusing on governance, a new constitution and new elections under U.N. supervision.

Editing by Andrew Roche/Ruth Pitchford

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