UN restarts peace talks as al-Assad holds elections

The United Nations resumed Syrian peace talks Wednesday in Geneva without waiting for the Syrian government to complete its elections for a rubber-stamp parliament.

UN mediator Staffan de Mistura met only with opposition negotiators, as government delegates are scheduled to arrive in the Swiss UN city only on Friday.

De Mistura did not comment on the election Wednesday. He said last week that he was only interested in the elections that the UN Security Council has said should take place within 18 months under UN supervision.

This round of talks, the third since February, is to focus on "political transition, governance, constitution," de Mistura told reporters Wednesday.

In the previous round in March, regime delegates were not willing to discuss a change of power and the establishment of a transitional governing body as demanded by the opposition and the UN Security Council.

De Mistura said the Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran had signalled to him that they supported talks on these topics, but he acknowledged that the nature of the political transition had yet to be discussed.

"It has become clear that Assad is the disease that has struck Syria," chief opposition negotiator Asaad al-Zoubi said in Geneva.

He called Wednesday's election in government-held areas a "farce" and said that "Syria can only heal with the departure of Assad and emblematic figures in the regime."

The elections are expected to be dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's Arab nationalist Baath Party and other regime loyalists.

The embattled president and his wife, Asma, cast their votes in the capital Damascus.

Al-Assad hailed what he said was "widescale participation by all elements of society." Syrian television showed lines of voters waiting outside polling stations. The government extended voting by five hours, citing high turnout.

Some 3,500 candidates who have been screened for loyalty are contesting 250 seats in the polls, the third to be held since the uprising against al-Assad began in 2011.

The outgoing parliament was elected in 2012. Al-Assad was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014.

About 63 per cent of the population lived in government-held areas as of November, according to estimates by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

Some residents in these areas said most of the voters appeared to be loyalist students or workers employed in the public sector or by pro-Assad businesspeople.

For the first time, serving army personnel were allowed to vote. Arrangements were also made for voters displaced by the conflict from their home districts.

"The participation of the army in this election is natural because a high percentage of the Syrian people are now members of the army and security forces," a Defence Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned the al-Assad regime against using the polls as a pretext for delaying the new round of peace talks.

"Under current conditions, where hundreds of thousands are denied free access to food and medicine, fair elections are inconceivable," Steinmeier told dpa.

France condemned the polls as a "sham."

"They are being held without a true electoral campaign, under the aegis of an oppressive regime without international observation," a French Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Syria's civil war, which started in 2011 after al-Assad's forces launched a brutal crackdown against protests, has cost a quarter of a million lives and driven half the country's populations from their homes, according to UN estimates.

The opposition said in Geneva that the government had violated the truce 2,000 times since it came into effect in late February.

De Mistura said that "in spite of several and serious incidents, the cessation of hostilities is still holding," while voicing concern about the worsening situation in some areas.

Last update: Wed, 13/04/2016 - 23:08

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