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Rival Syria delegations to sit down for direct talks, Russian minister says

A testy exchange between the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the start of a long-delayed peace conference on Syria.

The Syrian government and opposition, two rival delegations, will sit down for direct talks on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Wednesday after the first face-to-face peace talks between the two groups.

"As for guarantees that the talks will not collapse: It is necessary to influence both delegations so that this does not happen,'' Lavrov said after the Geneva II conference in Montreux, Switzerland, an international gathering aimed at finding a peaceful solution to Syria's nearly three-year-long conflict.

Lavrov said he held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba on Wednesday, in which Jarba demanded the Syrian government agree to an international plan for handing over power. Moualem responded that President Bashar Assad would not bow to outside demands, Reuters reported.

U.N. mediator Lakdar Brahimi said he would meet both Syrian delegations separately on Thursday, a day before the direct talks are scheduled to begin. But he expressed hesitation that the two sides would be willing to sit in the same room to work out their differences.

"We will try to see if we meet Friday morning separately and hopefully by Friday afternoon both sides will sit in one room," he said. "We have no illusion that it is going to be easy, but we are going to try very hard."

Lavrov added: "The main thing is to start the process."

Lavrov hailed Wednesday's conference as a breakthrough, and indicated there was progress over a possible ceasefire in Syria's northern city of Aleppo, while similar discussions were happening regarding the central city of Homs.

Rainer Jensen / EPA

Secretary of State John Kerry attends the opening of Syrian peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

Before leaving Switzerland for Moscow, Lavrov said Russia would work to convince Iran to engage in international talks on Syria.

Lavrov's remarks at the conclusion of Wednesday's talks provided a glimmer of hope on a day that started out with Secretary of State John Kerry calling out Assad for holding the region "hostage."

"We really need to deal with reality," Kerry said at the beginning of the Geneva II talks, according to a report by The Associated Press. "There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.

"One man, and those who have supported him, can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage." 

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Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem looks on at the start of peace talks on Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.

The meeting aimed to reach a solution to the bloodshed in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people since 2011. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling on both the Syrian regime and the Syrian National Coalition, a Western-backed group opposed to Assad, to work toward a solution to the conflict.

"I hope that the real negotiations will begin in all their sincerity and with the full speed to embrace these goals. May both Syrian delegations be guided by wisdom, a deep sense of urgency, a spirit of compromise and a determination to preserve their country and its unique social fabric and to end the suffering of its people," Ban said, reported Reuters. 

Saudi Arabia, which backs the largely Sunni-led Syrian opposition, said at the talks that there could be no role in Syria's transition for Assad and others whose hands were "stained in blood," Reuters reported.

Kerry was followed by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who refused to leave the podium despite repeated requests from the U.N. secretary-general.

"You live in New York. I live in Syria," he angrily told Ban, according to the AP. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."

Al-Moallem said no one except Syrians could remove Assad. According to the AP, he also accused the West and neighboring countries of funneling money, weapons and foreign fighters to the rebellion.

"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," he said. "Syrians here in this hall participated in all what has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent."

Before the talks began, Syria's Information Minister Omran-al-Zoubi told NBC News that there was "no civil war in Syria."

Then, apparently referring to documents disclosed on Monday that purport to show evidence of large scale killing of detainees in Syria, Zoubi said those images aren’t from Syria at all but instead were taken elsewhere around the Arab world.

NBC News' Elizabeth Chuck, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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