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The United States on Monday demanded that Syria allow aid into the "starving" city of Homs, as talks aimed at ending three years of civil war stalled once again over the future of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government said women and children could leave the besieged city and that rebels should hand over the names of the men who would remain. A U.S. State Department spokesman said an evacuation was not an alternative to immediate aid.
"We firmly believe that the Syrian regime must approve the convoys to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance into the Old City of Homs now," said State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez. "The situation is desperate and the people are starving."
He said the people of Homs must not be forced to leave their homes and split up their families before receiving aid. After long months of fighting, much of Syria's third biggest city has been reduced to rubble and people inside are under siege, cut off from supplies.
The city's fate has turned into a test of whether the first peace talks attended by both sides in the war can achieve practical measures on the ground, while a broader political settlement seems as remote as ever.
The United Nations mediator said he hoped Monday's talks in Geneva could cover the central issue that divides the two sides – Syria's political future and that of Assad – but the government and opposition immediately adopted entrenched positions.
"Once again, I tell you we never expected any miracle. There are no miracles here. But we will continue and see if progress can be made and when," said U.N. envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
Syria's government delegation had presented a document for negotiation that did not mention a transition of power, Syrian television said, shunning the opposition’s foremost demand a transitional government be appointed immediately.
The government's "declaration of basic principles" said Syrians would choose a political system without "imposed formulas" from abroad, an apparent reference to Western and regional demands that Assad step down.
The Western-backed opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which wants Assad to quit as part of arrangements for a transitional government, immediately rejected the proposal.
"The declaration is outside the framework of Geneva, which centers on creating a transitional governing body. It fails to address the core issue," the SNC’s chief negotiator, Hadi al Bahra, told Reuters.
Homs, occupying a strategic location in the center of the country, has been a key battleground. Assad's forces retook many of the surrounding areas last year, leaving rebels under siege in the city center, along with thousands of civilians.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a news conference on Sunday the government would let women and children leave the city center if rebels gave them safe passage. U.N. mediator Brahimi said he understood they would be free to leave Homs immediately.
Western diplomats said the Syrian government should move quickly to allow aid in or face a possible U.N. Security Council resolution, with Russia and China being urged to reverse their opposition to such a move.
"The ball is still in the regime's court. We understand that a report has gone back to Damascus seeking instructions," one diplomat said.
In Homs itself, opposition activists said rebels demanded a complete end to the blockade, not just a limited ceasefire. An online video showed demonstrators with Islamist flags denouncing the Geneva II talks as "treachery.”
It highlighted one of the difficulties of the Geneva II talks – the opposition delegation only represents some of the rebel factions on the ground.
Brahimi acknowledging the slow start to proceedings, which began with a formal international conference on Wednesday.
"This is a political negotiation ... Our negotiation is not the main place where humanitarian issues are discussed," said Brahimi.
"But I think we all felt ... that you cannot start a negotiation about Syria without having some discussion about the very, very bad humanitarian situation that exists," he said.
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