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Syria: Clash Ends 'Constructive' Start To Talks
The Syrian foreign minister and the UN Secretary-General have clashed at the start of crucial peace talks aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war.
Walid al Muallem ignored Ban Ki-moon's appeal for him to end an opening speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, saying: "You live in New York. I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum."
He also launched a blistering attack on the Syrian opposition, asking them: "Where is your vision for this great country? Where are your ideas? Where is your political programme? What are the tools on the ground? I am quite sure you have nothing."
Mr Ban said the "constructive mood" with which the talks began had been shattered and warned: "I hope this will not be repeated."
Earlier, the US Secretary of State said world leaders have an "opportunity and an obligation" to find a way to end a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and created an estimated 2.3 million refugees.
John Kerry said millions of Syrians "are relying on the international community to find a solution to save their lives and their country".
He said it had taken "a lot longer than many of us wanted" for world leaders to attempt to thrash out a resolution but said he was "as determined as ever" to end what he described as the "horrors of human catastrophe".
The conference on the banks of Lake Geneva is going ahead despite a last-minute dispute over the UN's decision to withdraw an invitation to Iran, after it refused to endorse a plan for a transitional governing body in Syria.
Groups fighting the rule of Bashar al Assad, who counts Iran as one of his closest allies, had threatened to pull out of the so-called "Geneva II" talks unless the invitation was rescinded.
In his opening exchange, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused the Syrian president of war crimes comparable to those committed by the Nazis during World War Two.
He demanded Mr Assad stand down as president and called on the government to commit to a transition of power - an issue expected to be central to the success of the talks.
However, Mr al Muallem has rejected any discussion of Mr Assad quitting his post.
"The subject of the president and the regime is a red line for us and the Syrian people and will not be touched," he said on the eve of the talks, according to the Sana news agency.
The conference also begins in the shadow of allegations of large-scale torture and execution of prisoners by government forces.
The day before the talks, a group of international lawyers published allegations of the "systematic torture and killing" of up to 11,000 people by the Syrian regime.
Foreign Secretary William Hague urged both sides in Syria to "seize the chance" to end the civil war as he arrived in Switzerland.
"Opposition has been tested and has come. Now regime must be tested on willingness to seek a political solution," he wrote on Twitter.
Mr Hague added that it was a "great shame" that Iran, which has enjoyed a thawing of relations with the West in recent months, had failed to endorse the principles of the talks.
US President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin had a "business-like" conversation about the Syrian conflict by phone on Tuesday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also met Mr Kerry in Montreux ahead of today's opening of negotiations.
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