GENEVA, December 17 (John Heilprin, Associated Press) - The United Nations plans to precede its internationally brokered peace talks between Syria's warring sides next month with a one-day meeting of foreign ministers in the Swiss city of Montreux, officials said Tuesday.
A daylong gathering for speeches by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and more than two dozen other foreign ministers is planned for Jan. 22 at a Montreux hotel. It is to be overseen by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with help from the Swiss government.
The session is taking place at the opposite end of Lake Geneva from the U.N. European headquarters because a luxury watch fair has taken up all the hotel rooms in Geneva for several days, Khawla Mattar, a spokeswoman for the U.N.-Arab League's special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters Tuesday.
Montreux, home of the famous jazz festival, was chosen because it has the security, facilities and hotels for such a high-profile gathering. Mattar said the foreign ministers will demonstrate "that there is global interest in solving" the Syria crisis. The conference will break up for a day, she said, and reconvene on Jan. 24 at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva for the start of actual negotiations between Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and armed Syrian opposition groups, which will be moderated by Brahimi.
The negotiators would set the timeframe for the talks at the start, she said, and Brahimi will urge the delegations to keep working through the weekend until they are finished. Those talks are restricted to the Syrians and Brahimi, she said. The aim of the "Geneva 2" conference is to agree on a roadmap for Syria based on one adopted by the U.S., Russia and other major powers in June 2012, including the creation of a transitional government that would lead to holding elections.
With his troops keeping their momentum on the ground, Assad's government has said he will not surrender power and may run again in elections due in mid-2014. Brahimi is to meet on Friday with U.S. and Russian envoys to make final preparations for the conference including the selection of which nations will be invited to the ministers' gathering.
Previous attempts to bring Syrians to the negotiating table have failed over questions that include whether Iran, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers should be involved. Later that day, the meeting will expand to include all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Syria's neighbors, which are straining to handle the refugee influx.
The last U.N. estimate in July put the death toll from the 3-year-old Syrian civil war at 100,000, though activists more recently gave a figure of 120,000. Along with 6.5 million internally displaced people, there are 2.3 million Syrians who have fled the country during the war. Most of those are scattered in refugee camps and informal settlements across neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. On Monday, the U.N. and other aid groups said they would need $6.5 billion to help the displaced Syrians in 2014, the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis.