UPDATE - Syrian peace talks begin in Sochi

UPDATE - Syrian peace talks begin in Sochi

UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura arrives in southern Russian city of Sochi


By Elena Teslova

SOCHI, Russia (AA) - Syrian peace talks began Monday in the southern Russian city of Sochi as part of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, organized by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow.

The congress is to be attended by all sectors of Syrian society except for terrorist groups.

The UN announced this past weekend the participation of Staffan de Mistura, its special envoy to Syria, who arrived Monday in Sochi.

Representatives of Iran, Russia, Turkey and de Mistura are to hold consultations on Monday, Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s envoy to Syria, told Russian news agency TASS.

The Syrian opposition's Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), however, announced Saturday that it would not take part in the meeting.

"We regret very much that the leadership of the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiation Committee that took part in inter-Syrian negotiations in Vienna under the chairmanship of Staffan de Mistura made such a statement about its unwillingness to take part in the congress. We hope that common sense will prevail, said Lavrentiev.

"The invitation remains on the table."

- Delegations

The main purpose of the talks is to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kazakhstan are among the countries that were invited as observers.

Earlier, Moscow had said that 1,600 invitations had been sent. The Syrian government confirmed the participation of a delegation of 680 people, while the Syrian opposition is to be represented by 400 participants.

Meanwhile, at least 90 opposition members -- Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs -- set off from Ankara and are expected to arrive in Sochi later today.

Arrivals in Sochi, however, fell short of the number invited, with only about half of the expected delegates in the Russian city as of late Monday, said sources close to the conference who asked not to be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media.

Additionally, the various delegations reportedly have accommodations far removed from each other, to avoid possible friction or even fighting, according to anonymous diplomatic sources.

The U.S., Britain, and France had earlier announced that they were not sending observers to the congress.

The main summit will begin tomorrow with opening speeches and will be closed to the press.

A final declaration is set to be announced at the end of the congress.

The Turkish delegation is chaired by Deputy Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Sedat Onal, while Lavrentiev leads the Russian team, and Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari heads Iran’s delegation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed the Sochi conference during their meeting in Moscow on Monday, Putin's assistant Yuri Ushakov told reporters, but gave no further details.

* Selen Temizer and Muhammed Shekh Yusuf in Sochi contributed to this story.

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