01/17/2014, 00.00
SYRIA

As Damascus agrees to a prisoner exchange, rebels in Istanbul . . .

If a swap were agreed upon, it would be the first exchange of prisoners of war in three years. The opposition meets in Turkey to decide on participation in Geneva II. Strong divisions exist between secularists and Islamists as well as between pro-Saudi and pro-Qatar factions. US Secretary makes a plea.

Damascus (AsiaNews/Agencies) - For the first time in three years of civil war, the Syrian government said it was ready to exchange prisoners with the rebels, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said today after a meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Mouallem did not specify how many prisoners such a swap would involve, but his announcement does represent a concession to one of the opposition's key demands before it would agree to the Peace Conference (Geneva II), which opens 22 January in Montreux, Switzerland.

Overall, the Syrian government's determination in preparing its participation in the Conference is in stark contrast to the doubts and hesitations of the opposition.

The Syrian National Coalition is set to meet today in Istanbul to decide whether to participate in Geneva II or not.

Despite its unity on wanting Assad out, the opposition has been unable to make up its mind even though there are no preconditions in participating in the conference.

Yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a powerful plea to the exiled group to decide in favour of the talks in Switzerland, saying that the transitional government that should emerge from the Conference would include people from both sides.

In recent days, the United States and Great Britain have even threatened to cut off aid if the opposition does not come to Geneva.

However, Syria's opposition is split. Secularists have often clashed with Islamists, who have already decided to boycott the conference.  

The faction backed by the Saudis - who do not want Iran's participation - is at loggerheads with the faction backed by Qatar, which accepts Tehran's presence.

Earlier this week, during Kerry's visit to the Vatican, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences issued a statement calling on the international community to encourage the participation of all the players involved in the conflict.

Almost three years of war have killed more than 130,000  people, creating more than two million refugees, and 7-8 million internally displaced persons.

According to the United Nations, at least 9.3 million Syrians are in need of food, medicine, and shelter.

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