January 20, 2016 / 10:35 AM / in 2 years

Syria's opposition says cannot attend talks if third party joins

RIYADH (Reuters) - A Syrian opposition council backed by Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it will not attend next week’s peace negotiations with the government if a third group takes part, a reference to a Russian bid to widen the opposition’s team.

Riad Hijab, who heads the Syrian opposition council backed by Saudi Arabia, speaks during a news conference in Riyadh January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Riad Hijab, who heads the council formed in Riyadh last month, accused Russia of impeding negotiations, and also told a news conference in Riyadh that the opposition could not negotiate while Syrians were dying from blockades and bombardment.

He also announced the names of opposition figures that would negotiate on behalf of the council in any talks.

They included Mohamed Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) rebel group that is deemed a terrorist group by Damascus and Moscow.

“The opposition delegation is now ready,” George Sabra, an opposition politician also named as a negotiator, told opposition channel Orient TV. Asaad al-Zoubi, another opposition figure, was named as the head of the negotiating team.

The United Nations said on Monday it would not issue invitations to peace talks between Syria’s government and opposition set to begin on Jan. 25 until major powers pushing the peace process reach agreement on which rebel representatives should attend.

The subject is expected to be discussed in a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.

Jaysh al-Islam is one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting Assad in western Syria. Its leader, Zahran Alloush, was killed in an air strike on Dec. 25.

Sabra said that only the council can choose the opposition delegation taking part in the talks and that countries like Russia had no right to object or try to widen the opposition team proposed.

“No country or side has the right to object to the Syrian (opposition) right to propose whoever they want to represent them and no one has the authority to put forward any names other than the council,” he said.

The peace talks aim at ending the country’s five years conflict and in which more than 250,000 people are believed to have been killed and also at setting up a transitional government and eventual elections.

The countries driving the diplomatic initiative on Syria include the United States, Russia and other European and Middle Eastern powers, including rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. But they remain deeply divided over how to settle the war.

Reporting by Angus McDowell; Writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Tom Perry and Raissa Kasolowsky

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