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Ousting of Assad 'red line' for Syrian government: FM

Syrian government says it refuses to discuss Assad's exit, days ahead of talks expected to broach the topic of presidential elections
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during a news conference in Damascus last month (AFP)

The ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's remains a "red line" for the government, the country's top diplomat said on Saturday ahead of the resumption of peace talks in Geneva.

"We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the presidency ... Bashar al-Assad is a red line and is the property of the Syrian people," Walid Muallem told a news conference in Damascus.

Muallem also said that the Syrian government delegation, scheduled to leave for Geneva on Sunday, will wait no more than 24 hours for the opposition delegation to arrive.

"We will wait 24 hours, and if no one is there, then we will return," he said.

Muallem insisted that the opposition delegation take part in talks at the UN headquarters in the Swiss city, deriding them for "spending the last round in hotels".

"Otherwise, we will not waste our time," Muallem said.

The last round of talks in Geneva between the government and the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, collapsed in February as a Russian-backed government offensive pressed on in Aleppo.

At the time, the HNC delegation arrived in Switzerland about 36 hours after the government but waited another two days to head to the UN headquarters. 

The delegation had insisted that humanitarian aid reach towns under government siege, a measure already agreed under adopted UN resolution 2254, before they would fully participate in the peace talks. They also sought guarantees for an end to bombardment of civilians.

A US- and Russian-sponsored ceasefire in the country that began on 27 February has "largely" held up, according to US officials on Friday.

However, a day after seven people were killed by suspected Syrian government air strikes in Aleppo, US and Russian officials were scheduled to meet on Saturday to discuss opposition charges of government truce violations.

Both the government and the HNC have agreed to participate in a fresh round of indirect talks in Geneva starting on Monday. 

UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura said the talks launch would start the countdown to UN-monitored presidential and parliamentary elections within 18 months.  

But Muallem said de Mistura "has no right" to discuss future presidential elections. 

"Neither he nor anyone else, whoever they may be, has the right to discuss presidential elections. This right is exclusively for the Syrian people," the top diplomat said.