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1,900 Syrians slain amid peace talks

by JOHN HEILPRIN Associated Press on January 31, 2014 10:00 AM

GENEVA — Activists say that fighting on the ground in Syria has killed nearly 1,900 people, including at least 430 civilians, during the week of U.N.-hosted peace talks in Switzerland.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said today it has counted 1,870 dead from the day the talks started on Jan. 22 until Thursday evening.

The Observatory says those killed include at least 430 civilians who died from bombs, snipers and missiles. The rest were rebels, al-Qaida militants and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.

The first face-to-face meetings between Syria’s warring sides in three years were wrapping up today. U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has suggested Feb. 10 as the return date for continuing the peace talks between Syria’s warring sides. Brahimi said the opposition agreed to return on Feb. 10 and the government also had agreed to come back, but that it first wanted some time to consult in Damascus before firmly agreeing to the exact date.

At the end of the first face-to-face meetings between Syria’s two sides, Brahimi said he sees some positive steps and common ground but the gaps between the sides “remain wide.”

He called the week of meetings “a modest beginning, but it is a modest beginning on which we can build.”

Weeklong negotiations have been strained over issues such as the opposition’s demand for — and the government’s resistance to — a transfer of power in Syria. The talks have so far failed to achieve any concrete results, including the passage of humanitarian aid convoys to besieged parts of the central city of Homs.

A day earlier, Brahimi said the week produced “tense moments and rather promising moments” and said he hoped that all parties could be better organized in the next session.

On Thursday, Syrian negotiators observed a minute of silence to honor the tens of thousands of people who have died in their country’s civil war — a rare moment of unity in talks otherwise marked by divisions and bitterness.

The fact that the negotiations — aimed at ending the three-year civil war that has killed more than 130,000 people — continued for the entire week was seen by many as an encouraging start. But the two sides continue to blame each other for the violence in Syria and remain deeply divided over how to end the war and if Syria’s future government should include President Bashar Assad.

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