Syria says peace talks must first focus on 'terrorism'
DAMASCUS - Syria's regime said Friday that the latest UN-backed peace talks must start with a focus on terrorism after attacks around Damascus, a call likely to be rejected by the opposition.
A fifth round of negotiations to end the conflict have started in Geneva, with the government delegation meeting UN mediator Staffan de Mistura.
President Bashar al-Assad's representatives and the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) have agreed to tackle four issues: governance, drafting a new constitution, elections and combating terrorism in the war-ravaged country.
"We can start with any one of these," lead government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari told reporters after meeting de Mistura.
"But developments on the ground... require us to start tomorrow with terrorism," he said, adding that de Mistura "showed understanding" for that plan.
Rebels and allied jihadists this week launched two surprise offensives on government positions in Damascus and central Hama province, which Jaafari said he had discussed with de Mistura.
The HNC has repeatedly accused the regime of invoking terrorism as a distraction from the longstanding stumbling block of a political transition, including the possible removal of Assad from office.
Jaafari, Syria's UN ambassador, added that Assad's government was "not neglecting" the other agenda items and "there will be time devoted to each".
De Mistura, due to meet the HNC later on Friday, has said that the agreement on a "clear agenda" was a sign of progress, although experts have voiced doubt that the negotiations will progress.
Four previous rounds have yielded little. with the government emboldened following major military victories in recent months helped partly by strong support from its ally Russia.