Put Syrian people "at the heart" of discussions, UN chief tells negotiators

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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gives a press conference at the 26th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 2016 UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Parties to the Syria peace-talks underway in Geneva, need to put the Syrian people "at the heart" of their discussions, according to the UN chief.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was speaking as the senior UN envoy leading the so-called proximity talks paid a courtesy visit to opposition leaders who arrived in Geneva on Saturday.

Matthew Wells has more.

Mr Ban began his press conference at the African Union Summit by focusing on the critical talks finally underway, many miles away in Geneva.

The coalition of opposition groups know as the High Negotiations Committee, delayed their arrival last week, demanding an end to government air strikes and blockades before negotiations could begin.

But a 17-person delegation, according to news reports, is now in the Swiss city of Geneva, saying they had not withdrawn their demands, but were prepared to engage with UN Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who will be meeting the warring groups separately in a talks process that is scheduled to last six months.

Mr Ban said the stakes could not be higher. 

"I urge all parties to put the people of Syria at the heart of their discussions, and above partisan interests. Civilians, including children and women, have been bearing the brunt of this conflict. We must urgently see an end to the fighting, the sieges and the other terrible human rights abuses that have characterized this war."

As a reminder of the consequences of failing to end the war which has left more than 10 million homeless and killed more than 250,000, it was reported by the UN on Sunday that that the situation remains dire for thousands of besieged and hungry Syrians.

More than 12,500 people face a deteriorating humanitarian crisis in the towns of Foah and Kafraya, which are besieged by opposition forces. 70 per cent of the farmland around the towns, which had helped to feed the hungry population, is now inaccessible due to the danger of sniper-fire, said the UN.

Proximity talks involving all the parties are due to begin in Geneva, on Monday.

Matthew Wells, United Nations.

Duration: 1'40"

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