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Syrians talk aid, prisoners as mortars still fall

GENEVA, Switzerland--Syrians on opposite sides of their country's civil war tried again Sunday to find common ground, with peace talks focusing on the release of prisoners and an aid convoy to a besieged city that once more came under mortar attacks from the government.

Once again the delegation for President Bashar Assad complained that the talks are avoiding the main issues and questioned their usefulness.

The proposed convoy of aid to Homs, Syria, which has been under government attack for more than a year, would provide a tangible success for a peace conference beset from the start by low expectations.

But the opposition accused the government of “stalling” and said no progress had been made yet.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator acting as a buffer between the two sides, said the thorniest topic — a possible transitional government — will not come up until at least Monday.

He said late Saturday that the two sides would first try to come together over humanitarian aid and a possible prisoner exchange, describing a process of “half-steps.”

“I think this belittles the importance of this conference and the goal that was drawn for it,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad.

The Western-backed opposition, made up largely of exiled Syrians, says Assad has lost legitimacy and can no longer lead a country after unleashing the military on largely peaceful protests nearly three years ago.

The government says the rebellion is rife with terrorists and that Assad is the only person able to end the fighting that has killed more than 130,000 people.

In the meantime, the homegrown rebellion has become a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with foreign fighters flooding in on both sides.

Homs was considered a promising place to start the negotiations.

The city was one of the first areas that plunged into armed conflict in 2011. Neighborhoods in the old city have been ravaged following repeated government assaults to reclaim control from rebels.

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