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'We are under no illusion it will be easy but we have to try very hard' Syria talks remain on track but pace is achingly slow

The UNBROKERED peace talks on Syria remained on track yesterday as opposition and government representatives met face-to-face for the first time, despite constant threats of negotiations being derailed.

Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said the first day of talks had not yielded significant results, but he hoped they would lead to aid supplies reaching the besieged city of Homs.

"We haven't achieved much but we are continuing," Brahimi said following two meetings between the government and opposition delegations at United Nations headquarters in Geneva. "The situation is very difficult and very, very complicated, and we are moving not in steps, but half-steps."

The focus of the talks will continue today on opening up access to humanitarian aid - the topic the two sides did agree to discuss.

Brahimi added that if an agreement could be reached, a humanitarian convoy could move into Homs city on Monday.

Only after a threat on Friday from the Syrian delegation, led by foreign minister Walid al Muallem, to walk out if "serious talks" did not begin within 24 hours, did the warring sides agree to meet.

During the first carefully choreographed meeting yesterday the two sides filed into the room through separate doors and sat silently for half-an-hour as veteran diplomat Brahimi - the only one to speak - laid the groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war.

Both sides appeared to soften their approach by agreeing humanitarian aid would be a priority for talks. Previously the opposition Syrian National Coalition had focused on ousting president Bashar al-Assad, while the Damascus contingent zeroed in on fighting terrorism.

True to form, the peace talks in Switzerland mirrored the bitterness of the three-year-old civil war. No sooner had they opened last week in the town of Montreux than both sides were at each other's throats. One UN diplomat said the wonder on the first day was that neither side walked out. "That counts as a success," she said. "At least they showed that they were prepared to get the talks started when they moved on to Geneva yesterday."

Basically, the talks known as "Geneva II" are being held to attempt to find some common ground between the Syrian government led by president Bashar al-Assad and a loose coalition of opposition groups, many of which have links to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Behind the scenes, however, each side enjoys the support of major global players and regional Arab power brokers. But the most important of these outside influences - the Islamic Republic of Iran - will not be participating. Instead, president Hassan Rouhani will be a mere 185 miles away at Davos where he is at the World Economic Forum.

From there he sent his views on what would be the best outcome for a country which is a key Iranian ally and a fellow supporter of the Shia faction of Islam in the Middle East: "The best solution is to organise free and fair elections inside Syria," he told an invited audience. "No outside party or power can decide for the Syrian people and Syria as a country. We all have to help the people."

Brokered by the UN, the Geneva II conference is one of the largest assemblies ever mounted. In addition to 40 delegate countries with interests in the Middle East, it has also attracted the attention of the European Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, Syria's government and Syria's opposition National Coalition. "We have no illusion that it is going to be easy," admitted Brahimi as the main talks began on Friday, "but we are going to try very hard."

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