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Homs cease-fire extended 3 days as new round of Syria talks off to acrimonious start

The second round of Syrian peace talks began Monday with the warring sides exchanging public accusations of mass killings and atrocities and, in separate meetings with Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy chairing the talks, presented widely divergent views on how to proceed toward an initial transitional settlement to end the conflict.

Not wanting to add to the charged atmosphere, Brahimi did not hold his regular news conference at the end of the day. Instead he put out a brief statement saying the talks centered chiefly on questions “relating to the cessation of violence and terrorism and the establishment of a transitional governing body.”

Diplomats tracking the talks predicted that the current round would fail as did the initial round at the end of January.

Despite the acrimony, the two sides did agree to extend a “humanitarian pause” in Homs for three more days, allowing the evacuation of civilians wanting to leave the old city district and the delivery of food shipments. Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, announced the extension, which came after a difficult weekend in Homs where a relief team was struck by mortar rounds and sniper fire.

Still, a senior U.N. official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue said more than 800 of the estimated 2,500 civilians thought trapped in the old city district had managed to leave since Friday and food deliveries had been made. The official said at least 200 Christians who had not been able to leave over the weekend are among those expected to be evacuated in coming days.

Amos also denounced the weekend attacks on the U.N. aid convoys, which she said killed 11 people. But she carefully avoided blaming either side.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent aid workers were deliberately targeted. I am deeply disappointed that the parties were unable to hold their cease-fire,” she said.

In a development showing rising concern that the peace talks might fail, Russia stepped up its representation here, dispatching its deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, to monitor the talks, joining Wendy Sherman, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, who is here on behalf of the Obama administration. The U.N. confirmed that Brahimi will meet Friday with Gatilov and Sherman.

In the separate sessions with Brahimi, the Syrian opposition continued to say that establishing a transitional governing authority that the opposition believes would exclude President Bashar Assad must be the talks’ first priority. For its part, the Syrian government delegation said combating terrorism had to be dealt with before approaching the governance issue.

Anas al Abda, a member of the opposition negotiating team, told McClatchy that “the political track needs to take place in a neutral environment by establishing the transitional governing body.”

But Syria’s official SANA news agency reported that the government delegation had called it “an imperative to first agree on fighting terrorism in order to pave the way on the ground to launch the political process with all details.”

It also called on Brahimi to condemn what it said was a massacre at Maam, in Hama province, over the weekend. The government said “entire families including women, children and the elderly” had been killed by rebel forces.

Louay Safi, the chief spokesman for the opposition, countered that more than 1,800 people had been killed by so-called barrel bombs filled with explosives and dropped from government aircraft.

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