UN calls summit prior to Syria talks

Fighting goes on in Syria as the UN prepares its conference. Picture: Getty
Fighting goes on in Syria as the UN prepares its conference. Picture: Getty
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The United Nations plans to precede its internationally brokered peace talks between Syria’s warring sides next month with a one-day meeting of foreign ministers in the Swiss city of Montreux.

A day-long gathering for speeches by US secretary of state John Kerry, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and more than two dozen other foreign ministers is planned for 22 January at a Montreux hotel. It is to be overseen by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, with help from the Swiss government.

The session is taking place at the opposite end of Lake Geneva from the UN European headquarters because a luxury watch fair has taken up all the hotel rooms in Geneva for several days, Khawla Mattar, a spokeswoman for the UN-Arab League’s special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said yesterday.

Montreux, home of the jazz festival, was chosen because it has the security, facilities and hotels for such a high-profile gathering.

The conference will break up for a day, she said, and reconvene on 24 January at the UN’s European headquarters for the start of negotiations between Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government and armed Syrian opposition groups, which will be moderated by Mr Brahimi.

The negotiators would set the timeframe for the talks at the start, Ms Mattar said, and Mr Brahimi will urge the delegations to keep working through the weekend until they are finished.

Those talks are restricted to the Syrians and Mr Brahimi, she said.

The aim of the Geneva 2 conference is to agree on a plan for Syria based on one adopted by the US, Russia and other major powers in June 2012, including the creation of a transitional government that would lead to holding elections. With his troops keeping their momentum on the ground, Mr Assad’s government has said the president will not surrender power and may run again in elections due in mid-2014.

Mr Brahimi is to meet on Friday with US and Russian envoys to make final preparations for the conference including selection of which nations will be invited to the ministers’ gathering.

Previous attempts to get Syrians to the negotiating table have failed over questions that included whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be involved.

Later that day, the meeting will expand to include all five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – plus Syria’s neighbours, which are struggling to handle a refugee influx.

The last UN estimate in July put the death toll from the three-year-old Syrian civil war at 100,000.

Along with 6.5 million internally displaced people, there are 2.3 million Syrians who have fled the country during the war. Most of those are scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements across neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

On Monday, the UN and other aid groups said they would need $6.5 billion (£4bn) to help the displaced Syrians in 2014, the largest appeal yet for a single crisis.

Activists said Syrian military aircraft targeted rebel-held districts in the northern city of Aleppo for the third day in a row yesterday, killing at least 15 people.

On Sunday, 76 people, including 28 children, were killed in air raids and the city was hit by another round of air strikes on Monday.