UN Syria peace talks begin in Geneva

Rivals never sat at same table during three previous rounds of talks

GENEVA - The first full day of a fresh round of Syria peace talks began in Geneva Friday as a suicide bombing killed 42, underlining the fragile state of a ceasefire on the ground.
The UN's Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who brought regime and opposition delegates symbolically together to launch the talks late Thursday, held separate meetings with them Friday to hammer out the format for the meetings.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was "encouraged that the Syrians ... sat together in the same room," his spokesman in New York said, even if it remains unclear whether the two sides will actually hold face-to-face negotiations.
During three previous rounds of talks in Geneva last year, the rivals never sat down at the same table, instead leaving de Mistura to shuttle between them.
"While acknowledging that progress will not be easy, (Guterres) believes strongly that only a political solution can bring peace to Syria and that all those Syrians who have committed themselves to this goal should redouble their efforts for peace," he added.
- Over 300,000 dead -
But even as bilateral talks began on Friday, the death toll in a suicide bombing near the Syrian town of Al-Bab rose to 42, the latest atrocity in a six-year war which has killed more than 310,000 people.
Most of the dead were Turkish-backed rebels, who had only just taken the stronghold town from Islamic State (IS) militants.
The bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives outside a rebel command centre in the village of Susian, eight kilometres (five miles) northeast of Al-Bab, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
There was no immediate claim for the attack but it bore all the hallmarks of IS, which had put up fierce resistance in Al-Bab for weeks.
The strategic town, just 25 kilometres south of the Turkish border, was the jihadists' last stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.
In Geneva, de Mistura -- hosting the first UN-sponsored talks since April -- acknowledged the frailty of the ceasefire, which was agreed in late December.
- 'Fragile' ceasefire -
It is "important for all sides to understand that war cannot continue and there are reasons why I think it is the right moment" for the talks, he said late Thursday.
The ceasefire "is fragile but it is there, and we didn't have one for many months," he added.
In his welcoming address, the veteran diplomat called on the war-torn nation's rival sides to meet their historic responsibility
But he played down hopes of a breakthrough.
"I'm not expecting miracles," he admitted while warning of dire consequences if the talks "fail again".
The talks between negotiators for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition have been clouded by persistent violence and deadlock over the country's political future.
The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has said it wants to meet the government face-to-face.
Two other opposition groups based in Moscow and Cairo, who are also in the Swiss city, want a seat at the table but the HNC has insisted it should remain the only rebel delegation.
De Mistura said his "dream" was to have one opposition grouping but noted that key divisions persist, especially over Assad's fate.
The HNC has demanded Assad leave office as part of any deal, while the Moscow and Cairo groups have a more moderate stance on the Syrian leader.
- End the 'nightmare' -
Since the last UN-sponsored talks in April, the situation both on the ground and diplomatically has shifted.
The rebels are now in a significantly weaker position.
The army has recaptured the rebel bastion of eastern Aleppo and Washington, once staunchly opposed to Assad, has said it is reassessing every aspect of its Syria policy under President Donald Trump.
While acknowledging the major obstacles, de Mistura asked the sides to "work together."
"The Syrian people desperately want an end to this conflict and you all know it... they are awaiting for a relief from... suffering and dream of a new road out of this nightmare," he added.