Face-to-face Syria meeting pushed back to today

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GENEVA -- A face-to-face meeting between negotiators for the Syrian government and the opposition was postponed Friday at the request of the opposition, and both sides have threatened to withdraw, but the United Nations official mediating the talks said he is certain they will take place today.

U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had every expectation that both sides would appear today and sit down in the same room. The veteran Algerian negotiator said separate talks with the two sides Friday "were encouraging," and he hoped that today's encounter "will be a good beginning."

The sides will be led by negotiators of vastly different diplomatic experience. At the head of the Syrian government's delegation will be that country's foreign minister, Walid Moallem.

The opposition said its team would be led by a U.S.-trained industrial engineer, Hadi al-Bahra, who, it appeared from his official biography, last lived in Syria more than 30 years ago.

A senior Western diplomat, who spoke anonymously under terms of a briefing to reporters, said one of the first orders of business will be to persuade the Syrian government, with the support of the opposition, to allow an aid convoy into the old city of Homs, which has been under government siege for more than a year. Humanitarian aid officials say as many as 3,000 people are still living in the old city, which has not received outside supplies since late 2012.

With the opposition asking for a delay in Friday's scheduled face-to-face talks, Mr. Moallem warned Mr. Brahimi that "if serious work sessions didn't start tomorrow, Syria's official delegation would leave, because the other side is not serious or ready," according to the official Syrian news agency SANA. Later, his deputy withdrew the threat. "Syria's official delegation will remain in Geneva and will exert every possible effort, whether through the U.N. or through the Russian friends, to start work as soon as possible," Fayssal Mikdad said.

The opposition's plea for time to organize its positions was no surprise. It agreed to attend the talks only a week ago, after a major internal debate that saw 40 percent of its members walk out.

What did come as a surprise was Mr. Bahra's appointment to head the negotiating team. Mr. Bahra received his bachelor's degree from Wichita State University in Kansas. He maintained an apartment in Wichita until 1996, records show. Other accounts said he had worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s.

The biography distributed by the opposition indicates that he has no political experience and no diplomatic background. His skills, according to the biography, are "in communications systems and display technology, and in all aspects of media production, and the organization of conferences, and display systems and translation."

More recently, he "contributed to the media activity and relief and political revolution," it said.

The talks are expected to run through Friday, then break for at least a week.

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