Syrian rebels cast doubt on Monday that they would attend Russian-backed peace talks in Kazakhstan this week, accusing Moscow of failing to get Damascus to fully comply with a ceasefire deal or release any prisoners. The Kazakh government said on Saturday it had invited the government and rebels for Feb. 15-16. They attended a similar indirect meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana last month.
Mohammad Al Aboud, a senior rebel official, said the delegation would not attend. “There were violations in the ceasefire and the Russians did not live up to their promises to halt these violations,” he told Reuters.
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A second rebel official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at most a handful of rebels might attend, but only if progress was seen in the next two days. “The (whole) delegation will not go,” he said.
The Syrian government said earlier on Monday it was ready to agree on prisoner swaps with rebel groups, a potential confidence-building measure as the United Nations prepares to convene new peace talks.
The Syrian opposition has long demanded the release of government-held detainees as one of several humanitarian actions needed before any negotiations over Syria’s political future.
The government was “always ready” to exchange prisoners in its jails for people “kidnapped by terrorist groups”, Syrian state media cited an official source as saying.
A rebel official dismissed the statement as a ruse, saying Damascus had far more detainees than the few the rebels held.
NEXT ROUND OF TALKS
The next round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks are due to start in Geneva on Feb. 20, part of a new diplomatic effort backed by Russia and Turkey to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The Astana talks are a parallel effort to shore up a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia late last year. Monday’s state media report said the Syrian government was always ready to exchange prisoners, “particularly in the framework of efforts made for the coming Astana meeting”.
Rebels accuse Russia of failing to pressure the Syrian army and its Iranian backed militias to end what they see as violations of the Turkish-Russian ceasefire. Moscow is President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally.
“It is a political game,” said the official.
This month, in a rare move, the Syrian government and rebel groups swapped dozens of women prisoners and hostages, some of them with their children, in Hama province in northwestern Syria.
Amnesty International said in a report this month that the government had executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings at a military jail near Damascus. The Syrian justice ministry called the report “devoid of truth”.
The main Syrian opposition body on Sunday approved its delegation to next week’s Geneva talks. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the opposition for approving the delegation.