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First Syria talks session breaks up

The first meeting meant to discuss the contentious issue of a Syrian transitional government broke up less than an hour after it began after a tense session described by one delegate as "a dialogue of the deaf".

The Syrian government has said it will not discuss replacing Bashar Assad as the leader of a country his family has ruled since 1970.

The opposition insists he must step down in favour of a transitional governing body with full executive powers that would lead the country until elections are held.

The UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, managed to get both sides to sit in the same room over the weekend to discuss humanitarian aid to besieged areas of the besieged central city of Homs and a possible prisoner exchange, but the opposition said little progress had been achieved.

Yesterday, after three days of talks, a tentative agreement was reached about the evacuation of women and children trapped in Homs before aid convoys go in.

Today, the two delegations were supposed to begin discussing thorny political issues such as Assad's future.

As the meeting got under way, the government delegation put forward a paper focusing on the need to combat terrorism and halt funding and shipments of weapons to rebels fighting to topple Assad, delegates said.

Both sides said the opposition rejected the paper, and the opposition said it insisted on talking about a transitional government as scheduled.

"At that point they began to get even more confrontational and began to lecture in a very dictatorial manner," Murhaf Joueijati, a member of the National Syrian Coalition opposition group's negotiating team, said of the government delegation.

"We thought there was no point in continuing this since it was going to be a dialogue of the deaf," he said.

Mr Brahimi broke up the meeting and is scheduled to meet both sides separately later.

The inability of the two sides to discuss Assad's future was expected.

One of the key guiding principles for the talks in Geneva - which are aimed at stopping three years of bloodshed in Syria that has claimed more than 130,000 lives, and forced millions from their homes - calls for the creation of a transitional government that both sides accept.

"Today we will start talking about a new Syria, about transition from starvation to freedom, from torture to human rights and rule of law," said an opposition spokesman Monzer Akbik.

But Syria has said any discussion of a transitional government excluding Assad would cross "a red line".

Regarding Homs, Mr Akbik said the women and children there should decide whether they want to leave or stay after they have received aid.

He accused authorities of blocking a convoy of 12 trucks trying to get into the embattled city and said: "We will judge the regime by what it does, not by what it says."

State TV said a Syrian official and a UN representative were meeting in Homs to discuss how to evacuate women and children from rebel-held areas. It was unclear when the evacuation would start.

Homs governor Talal Barrazi said the only obstacle facing the flow of food into rebel held areas was "sniper fire by terrorist groups".

In a statement released by his office, Mr Barrazi said authorities are willing to evacuate civilians who want to leave the old quarter of Homs to "any place they want to go to" and they will get food and medical supplies.

"We are waiting for an answer from international organisation representatives to specify the number of those who want to leave," Mr Barrazi said.

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