Damascus rules out talks on presidential vote

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The Syrian government on Saturday ruled out any discussion of presidential elections at peace talks due to start next week, drawing accusations from the opposition that it was halting the talks before they started.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking at a Damascus news conference, confirmed his government’s participation in U.N.-led talks but said they would fail if the opposition had “delusions that they will take power in Geneva that they failed to take in battle”.

He also heaped criticism on U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura for presenting an agenda for the talks and saying presidential elections would take place in 18 months time.

“The government delegation will reject any attempt to put this on the agenda,” he said at the televised news conference.

The peace talks aim to build on a U.S.-Russian “cessation of hostilities” agreement that has halted much of the fighting between the Syrian government and rebels fighting to topple Assad since it came into effect two weeks ago.

The main opposition council, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), wants the talks to focus on a transitional governing body with full executive powers.

Moualem indicated that a “national unity government” was the most his government would be willing to discuss – an idea ruled out by the opposition council that groups armed factions and political opponents of Assad and is backed by Saudi Arabia.

Attacking de Mistura, Moualem said the U.N. envoy must be neutral and objective. The government delegation would be willing to discuss the agenda, he added.