Syrian government and rebels face off, briefly and silently

GENEVA - The first face-to-face meeting between Syria's government and the opposition hoping to overthrow Bashar Assad started and ended after barely a half-hour Saturday, with the two sides facing each other silently as a U.N. mediator split the distance between them and laid the groundwork for talks intended to lead Syria out of civil war.

After tense days spent avoiding each other and meeting separately with the mediator, Assad's handpicked delegation and representatives of the Syrian National Coalition gathered briefly at a single U-shaped table, then emerged and went separate ways, using different doors to avert contact.

Only the mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, spoke, according to Anas al-Abdeh, who was among the coalition's representatives.

The two sides were distant going into the meeting, with the Damascus delegation denying it had accepted the premise of a transitional leadership, and the opposition saying it would accept nothing less. Diplomats have said even getting them to the same table can be considered an accomplishment three years into the uprising that left 130,000 people dead.

"Today we shall start with modest ideas and we will build on them to achieve something and we move gradually to bigger and bigger issues," Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad said going into the meeting.

Al-Abdeh said the antagonists would face each other again later Saturday but would only address Brahimi, not each other. First on the agenda was a cease-fire in the city of Homs, which has been under government siege for more than a year and where reports of starvation deaths have emerged.

It was very difficult to "sit at the table with the killers," al-Abdeh said.

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