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Long-Sought Syrian Peace Talks Begin

Delegations from more than 30 countries, the United Nations and the opposing sides in Syria's nearly three-year civil war are meeting Wednesday in Switzerland for the first stage of long-awaited peace talks.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference in Montreux saying the challenge of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis is "formidable," but that having the Syrian parties present raises hope.

The idea for the conference first emerged in May of last year, and Mr. Ban said the eight months since then have been an "extremely difficult path" with valuable time and many lives lost.

The meeting Wednesday will give the delegations an opportunity to address the peace effort before the process shifts to talks Friday in Geneva between only the Syrian sides and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Mr. Ban said the second phase of negotiations is the chance for the two sides to "save Syria." He also called on both sides to end all violence, including terrorist attacks and allow full humanitarian access. The U.N. chief said all sides in the conflict have shown a total disregard for their responsibilities under international humanitarian and human rights law.

The stated goal of the conference is for the Syrian government and rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad to agree on a transitional authority. Syria has long insisted Mr. Assad will not step down, and that divide has cast doubt on the prospect of a major breakthrough at the negotiations.

But Syria's information minister said Tuesday the government is optimistic, and eight months after the first effort to convene the talks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed the need to seize the opportunity.

"Now this opportunity must not be wasted. This is the opportunity for Syrian leaders on all sides to bring an end to this bloodshed, to save their country, and to put an end to such extraordinary misery, to the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century, so far."

Syria's main regional ally, Iran, will not be there. U.N. Secretary General Ban canceled Iran's invitation when it refused to accept the goal of a transitional government in Syria, which would likely would exclude Mr. Assad.

The United States and Russia have led the effort to organize the talks on the basis of an agreement reached at a 2012 conference to find a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. The document contains a series of steps, including the negotiated transitional government, a ceasefire and a commitment to allow full humanitarian access.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests before spiraling into a civil war that the U.N. says has killed well over 100,000 people and forced nearly 9 million from their homes.

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