Syria's government and the main opposition have met in the same room for the first time but did not speak to each other at the start of long-awaited peace negotiations in Geneva. 

In a meeting on Saturday, the two sides came together in the same room but refused to speak directly.

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Instead, the UN mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, passed messages between the two groups. The meeting lasted an hour and no statements were released afterward.

The heads of both delegations, the regime's foreign minister Walid al Muallem and Syrian National Council leader Ahmad Jarba, were not at the meeting, sources told Al Jazeera.

 

Brahimi had spent two days meeting the groups separately and, late on Friday, said: "I think the two parties understand what is at stake. Their country is in very, very bad shape. And I think that the people who are here representing the Opposition and the Government understand that as well as I do, or better. It is their country after all.  

"So the huge ambition of this process is to save Syria. No less than that."

On Friday, Syria's government threatened to leave Switzerland if "serious talks" did not begin by Saturday. The opposition, which agreed to the peace talks only under intense diplomatic pressure, had been reluctant to sit face-to-face with a government it insists must yield power.

But the government says it is there only to talk about fighting terrorism - the word it uses for its enemies - and that no one can force Assad to go.

Brahimi said the two parties were going to work Saturday and Sunday so neither would be leaving the conference.

Best hope

Direct negotiations are seen by many diplomats as the best hope for an eventual end to the war. 

Breakthrough on Syria talks in Geneva unlikely

As the talks appeared to be on the verge of collapse, fighting raged on Friday in parts of Syria, including near Damascus, the capital.

Protesters in several Syrian towns demonstrated against the talks, saying Assad had shown with years of military strikes against his people that he favoured violence over negotiations.

But the two sides' willingness to meet Brahimi - even separately - gave some hope that negotiations might bear fruit. Brahimi himself has said both sides may bend on humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and local ceasefires.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies