The Syrian foreign minister and the UN Secretary-General have clashed at the start of crucial peace talks aimed at ending the country’s bloody civil war.
Walid al Moualem ignored Ban Ki-moon’s appeal for him to end an opening speech that lasted more than 30 minutes, saying: “You live in New York. I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.”
He also launched a blistering attack on the Syrian opposition, asking them: “Where is your vision for this great country? Where are your ideas? Where is your political programme? What are the tools on the ground? I am quite sure you have nothing.”
Mr Ban said the “constructive mood” with which the talks began had been shattered and warned: “I hope this will not be repeated.”
Earlier, the US Secretary of State said world leaders have an “opportunity and an obligation” to find a way to end a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and created an estimated 2.3 million refugees.
John Kerry said millions of Syrians “are relying on the international community to find a solution to save their lives and their country”.
He said it had taken “a lot longer than many of us wanted” for world leaders to attempt to thrash out a resolution but said he was “as determined as ever” to end what he described as the “horrors of human catastrophe”.
The peace talks on the banks of Lake Geneva are going ahead despite a last-minute dispute over the United Nations’ decision to withdraw an invitation to Iran.
The exclusion of the Islamic Republic from the conference has highlighted tensions between the West and Russia over how to broker an agreement to end the violence.
Iran is the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The country’s exclusion came after Tehran refused to endorse a UN-backed plan for a transitional governing body in Syria.
The issue of transition of power is expected to be central to the success of the talks, which have been dubbed “Geneva II”.
The Western-backed opposition has demanded that Mr Assad must quit and face a war crimes trial.
But Mr al Moualem has rejected any discussion of Mr Assad being forced to step down.
“The subject of the president and the regime is a red line for us and the Syrian people and will not be touched,” he said on the eve of the talks, according to the SANA news agency.
The conference also begins in the shadow of allegations of large-scale torture and execution of prisoners by government forces.
The day before the talks, a group of international lawyers published allegations of the “systematic torture and killing” of up to 11,000 people by the Syrian regime.
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