Tensions high at Syria talks over Assad role

Government reps say he must stay; foes, U.S. disagree

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MONTREUX, Switzerland — Furiously divided from the start, representatives of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebellion against him threatened Wednesday to collapse a peace conference intended to lead them out of civil war.

Assad's future in the country devastated by three years of bloodshed was at the heart of the sparring, which took place against a pristine Alpine backdrop as Syrian forces and rebel fighters clashed across a wide area from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to Daraa in the south.

U.S. and U.N. officials said merely getting the two sides in the same room was something of a victory, but U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's claim that the discussions were "harmonious and constructive" was at odds with the testy exchange when he tried to get the podium from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

"You live in New York. I live in Syria," Moallem angrily told Ban. "I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right."

With little common ground, the two sides were to meet separately today with a U.N. negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, who said he still did not know if they were ready to sit at the same table when talks begin in earnest Friday. But, Brahimi said, both sides had shown some willingness to bend on local cease-fires and delivery of humanitarian aid, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they were also working on possible terms for a prisoner exchange.

The Western-backed opposition said Assad's departure was their starting point, echoing the position laid out by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

"The resolution cannot be about one man's -- or one family's -- insistence on clinging to power," Kerry said.

The response from the government delegation was firm and blunt.

"There will be no transfer of power, and President Bashar Assad is staying," Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told reporters.

The small-town venue of Montreux was chosen in haste when a watchmakers' convention left Geneva hotels booked. That made for some potentially awkward encounters -- some of the opposition were staying in the same hotel as the Syrian government delegates, as were the Americans.

Complicating matters, Assad's delegates and the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition both claimed to speak for the Syrian people. But the coalition has little sway with rebel brigades, who largely oppose talks with the government. And the government, Kerry said, has no legitimacy or loyalty among people devastated by war.