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Syrian opposition demands end to bombing before peace talks begin

High Negotiations Committee arrives in Geneva but says it will not participate in UN-backed talks unless sieges and Russian bombing end
Riad Naasan Agha arrives in Geneva on January 30 (AFP)

The future of the biggest push to date to end Syria's civil war looked highly uncertain on Sunday with the main opposition group threatening to walk away before planned peace talks began in earnest.

The High Negotiations Committee arrived in Geneva late on Saturday after a week of discussions on its attendance, but members said they would leave Switzerland if their demands were not met.

"We are here to discuss humanitarian matters first, and if this happens we will start the negotiations," chief spokesman Salem al-Mislet said after his team's arrival. "If not, there will be no negotiations, and there will be no reason for us to stay here." 

The HNC team is reported to have discussed the demands with the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, during a meeting on Sunday.

"We are keen to make this negotiation a success, but you should ask the other side. The other side is pretending to present the Syrian people. In fact he is killing the Syrian people. We're here to save the remaining children of Syria," Mislet said.

Doctors Without Borders on Saturday said 16 more people had starved to death in Madaya, one of more than a dozen towns under blockade by regime or rebel forces.

Since December, 46 people have died of starvation in the town, and MSF warned dozens more were on the verge of death in the town where many residents reportedly have been surviving on boiled grass.

They are among more than 4.5 million people with "immense humanitarian needs" are living in areas extremely hard to access because of fighting, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Syrian government meanwhile said it would not recognise members of the HNC it considers to belong to terrorist organisations.

Information Minister Omar al-Zoubi's said on state TV late on Saturday that it would "never accept" the involvement Ahrar al-Sham and the Army of Islam in negotiations in Geneva. The HNC includes Army of Islam official Mohammed Alloush as its chief negotiator. 

HNC member Riad Naasan Agha said Ahrar al-Sham had not sent representatives: "They did not withdraw [from the HNC] but they are not with us," he said.

The Army of Islam rebel group "is here, they are a negotiator".

Agha repeated Mislet's demands: "When there is an order for a ceasefire against civilians, an order to lift the siege and an order to release prisoners then we will enter the negotiations and talk about a transitional governing body with full executive powers."