GENEVA: Syria's government handed an ultimatum to a U.N. mediator hoping to broker peace in the country's civil war, vowing to leave if "serious talks" do not begin by Saturday.
The delegation chosen by President Bashar Assad met for less than 90 minutes Friday with U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi as part of a peace conference with the Western-backed opposition. The meeting has been on the verge of falling apart ever since it was conceived.
In Geneva, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Brahimi that if "serious talks don't begin Saturday, the official Syrian delegation will have to leave because the other party is not serious or ready," according to Syrian state television.
Direct talks planned for Friday between the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition were scrapped, and the opposition was to meet separately with Brahimi later at the U.N. European headquarters.
The Syrian government blamed the coalition for the lack of direct negotiations, which were seen as the best hope for an eventual end to the three-year civil war that has killed at least 130,000 people.
The bloodshed has destabilized the entire region and turned Syria into a magnet for al-Qaida-inspired militants. The two sides blame each other for the descent into chaos.
"Transition to a free Syria is the key to fighting terror," said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition, which has demanded Assad's departure.
As the peace conference faltered, fighting raged throughout parts of Syria, including near Damascus. Government forces bombed rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activists.
Underscoring the extent of foreign involvement in the conflict, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters fought alongside forces loyal to Assad around the area of eastern Ghuta, the British-based Syrian Observatory said. The rebels clashing against them included extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a hardline group dominated by foreign jihadis, the Observatory reported.
In Switzerland, Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad who traveled to Geneva for the talks, questioned whether the opposition coalition - made up largely of exiles based in Turkey - was prepared to negotiate an end to the violence.
"We came here with Syria and the Syrian people on our mind, only while they came here with positions and posts on their mind," she said.
The coalition's head, Ahmad al-Jarba, said late Thursday that he was committed to the talks and would give his negotiators full authority on their pace and scope. But on Friday, his chief of staff said the negotiations were never expected to be easy or quick, insisting that the coalition was simply not yet prepared to meet directly with the government.
"Everyone knows that these are proximity negotiations," said the aide, Monzer Akbik. "And for the time being, that's the way it is going to be."
Both sides have spent their time so far in Switzerland affirming positions hardened after nearly three years of fighting. They blamed each other for turning a once-thriving country into ruin and called each other terrorists.
But their willingness to meet with Brahimi - even separately - gave the first sense that the negotiations might bear some fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides had shown willingness to bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local cease-fires - even if the terms were still murky.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are sensitive, said the peace conference had not collapsed and that Brahimi "still plans to meet with the regime and the opposition together."
Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the opposition, told The Associated Press there was not enough common ground for direct talks on Friday.
The Syrian National Coalition, which is made up largely of exiles, lacks influence with an increasingly radicalized rebellion, which has been pulled apart by an influx of militants. Infighting among rebels has left 1,400 people dead in the past 20 days, according to activists, who have counted more than 130,000 deaths since the rebellion began in 2011.