US, Russian officials may meet Syrian delegates in Geneva Friday

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By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — Syrian negotiators on Tuesday held their first face-to-face meeting this month as U.S. and Russian officials prepared to join the lagging peace talks in Geneva.

The meeting broke up after three hours, and U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi planned to speak to reporters afterward.

Monzer Akbik, a senior member of the Syrian opposition delegation, told reporters that his side presented a paper outlining its "vision for the political solution in Syria" and that delegates may hold bilateral meetings with U.S. and Russian officials on Friday.

U.N. officials confirmed that there will be a three-way meeting in Geneva on Friday including Brahimi, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov and U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman. The Syrian negotiators also may join in bilateral meetings with the Americans and Russians.

Akbik also said that officers from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group have arrived in Geneva to run a "military advisory room" that helps coordinate security issues related to the peace talks.

"I think this is going to enhance the performance of our team and will enhance the linkage with the FSA on the ground," Akbik said.

Russia put the brakes on one avenue for pressuring Damascus, saying it would veto a Western-proposed U.N. resolution threatening sanctions if President Bashar Assad's government does not allow full deliveries of aid to civilians caught in the fighting.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose nation has joined with China in vetoing three other Western-backed resolutions on Syria, said in Moscow that the latest draft resolution was a "one-sided" effort to blame Assad's government for the holdup in aid.

The U.N. refugee agency's spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Syrian authorities are holding more than 300 men between the ages of 15 and 55 who took advantage of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire to flee from the besieged rebel-held Old City of Homs.

Some 1,132 people were evacuated in the past four days as part of a deal that requires men of fighting age to be questioned, Fleming said in Geneva. Syrian authorities had questioned 336 men in Homs province and released 41, she said, and the refugee agency is monitoring the ones who are still being held in an abandoned school.

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Zeina Karam in Geneva and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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