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Both sides in Syrian talks to meet in 'same room'

GENEVA (AP) — Bending to intense international pressure, Syria's government and the Western-backed opposition agreed Friday to face each other for the first time since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

After three days of hostile rhetoric and five hours spent assiduously avoiding contact within the United Nations, the two sides will meet "in the same room," said the U.N. mediator trying to forge an end to the civil war that has left 130,000 people dead since 2011.

Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met separately with Assad's delegation and representatives with the Syrian National Coalition, who arrived at the U.N. European headquarters five hours apart to ensure their paths would not cross.

"We never expected it to be easy and I'm sure it's not going to be, but I think the two parties understand what's at stake," Brahimi said. "Their country is in very, very bad shape."

Brahimi, a famously patient mediator, is credited with efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. ousted their governments. But he faces a formidable task to build peace in Syria, which has been flooded with al-Qaida-inspired militants. The conflict has become a proxy war between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Syria's government has made military gains and has capitalized on the influx of foreign militants, while the coalition nearly collapsed as it wavered on whether to attend the talks at all. After Brahimi spoke, a member of the group said it still wasn't clear what would happen Saturday.

"Everybody will be in the same room, but everybody will address Mr. Brahimi. He will be the one who is going to conduct the negotiations," said Louay Safi, who is taking part in the talks. "We will be addressing him. There will be no direct negotiation with the regime."

The coalition, which has the support of the U.S. and other Western powers, is largely made up of exiles and lacks any real influence on the opposition now riven by infighting among factions ranging from moderates to hard-line Islamic groups. Nearly 1,400 fighters have been killed in the last three weeks as the rebel groups grapple for dominance, according to activists.

Omran al-Zoubi, Syria's information minister, said Assad's delegation was committed.

"We will stay here until we do the job. We will not be provoked. We will not retreat and we will be wise and flexible," he said.

Underscoring the foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Assad around the area of eastern Ghouta, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Among those arrayed against them were extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a hard-line group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.

Syria's economy, once among the region's strongest, has been ruined. A quarter of its population has fled to camps in neighboring countries or within Syria. The front lines have been largely frozen for months, although Assad's forces — more cohesive than the rebellion and supported by Russia as well as Iran — have recently made inroads into territory captured by the opposition.

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