GENEVA (AFP) — The fates of the thousands jailed, kidnapped or missing in Syria will be on the table Sunday as the country’s warring sides pursue UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
A day after sitting together for the first time in the same room, delegates from President Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition resumed closed-door talks with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi acting as go-between.
Brahimi said Saturday’s meeting had been a “good beginning”, with the two sides discussing aid to besieged residents in rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs.
He said Sunday’s talks would focus on “a lot of people who have lost their freedom,” including the “thousands and thousands of people in the jails of the government.”
Prisoner releases could start, he said, with “women, old people and people underage.”
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told reporters in Geneva the issue of prisoners needed to be discussed “without discrimination”, with the focus also on people held by rebel forces.
“We must be precise on the issue of prisoners. There are also thousands of people who have been kidnapped, some who have been missing without a trace for two-and-a-half years,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a key watchdog, estimates that some 17,000 people have gone missing in the war, tens of thousands are being held in government jails and thousands kidnapped by armed groups including Islamist militias.
It has described conditions in government prisons as “horrific”, with overcrowding, supply shortages and outbreaks of disease.
A UN-mandated probe last month said Syrian government forces were waging a campaign of enforced disappearances to terrorize the population, amounting to a crime against humanity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that “untold numbers” have disappeared in Syria and that it has not been able to visit any of the country’s prisons in the last two years.
The harsh treatment of Syrian prisoners was thrown into the spotlight when former international prosecutors released a report this month alleging the “industrial-scale” torture and killing of 11,000 detainees by the regime.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said before the Geneva talks that the regime was “ready to exchange lists and develop the necessary mechanism” for prisoner swaps with the rebels.
Brahimi said he also hopes a deal can be reached on sending aid convoys on Sunday or Monday to Homs, where hundreds of families in the Old City are living under siege with near-daily shelling and the barest of supplies.
“If we achieve success on Homs we hope that this will be the beginning,” Brahimi said.
Despite the failure to agree on any concrete proposals, Saturday still marked progress after the regime on Friday accused the opposition of obstructing the negotiations and threatened to walk away.
Pulled together by the United Nations, Russia and the United States, the two sides are meeting in the biggest diplomatic push yet to stem Syria’s bloodshed after nearly three years of civil war.
The opposition insists the talks should focus on Assad leaving power and the formation of a transitional government based on an agreement reached during a first peace conference in Geneva in 2012.
The regime says Assad’s role is not up for debate at this conference — dubbed Geneva II — and denies that the initial Geneva deal requires him to go.
The opposition has said talks on security and aid are only a “prelude” and it wants to start discussions on the core issue of a political transition on Monday.
Expectations are very low for a serious breakthrough at the talks, which are expected to last about a week, but diplomats have said simply bringing the two sides together for the first time was an important step.
With no one appearing ready for serious concessions, mediators are focusing on short-term deals to keep the process moving forward, including on localized ceasefires, freer humanitarian access and prisoner exchanges.
Erupting after the regime cracked down on protests inspired by the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war has claimed more than 130,000 lives and forced millions from their homes.
Pitting Assad’s regime, dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, against largely Sunni Muslim rebels, the war has unsettled large parts of the Middle East.
(Source / 26.01.2014)