SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - A Syrian peace conference in Russia got off to a rocky start on Tuesday after some delegates opposed to President Bashar al-Assad refused to leave the airport on arrival, saying they were offended by the presence of the Syrian state’s flag and emblem.
Russia, a staunch Assad ally, is hosting what it has called a Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi that it hopes will launch negotiations on drafting a new constitution for Syria after almost seven years of war.
But in a blow to Moscow, which has cast itself as a Middle East peace broker, the event has been boycotted by the leadership of the Syrian opposition, while powers such as the United States, Britain and France are not there because of what they say is the Syrian government’s refusal to properly engage.
The conference, which was originally billed as a two-day event got underway as a one-day event on Tuesday. Reuters reporters said most of the delegates they had spoken to had come from Damascus and did not oppose Assad.
One group of delegates who had flown in from Turkey and were opposed to Assad refused to leave Sochi airport until Syrian government flags and emblems were refused.
“We will go back to Turkey,” Ahmad al-Burri, who has taken part in Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, told Reuters by phone.
“Whatever happens we will not enter Sochi. We informed them (the Russians) of our conditions that they should remove all the logos and flags representing the Syrian government.”
Mohammed Adnan, a journalist and member of the Syrian opposition based in Turkey, said there were about 70 people in the group at the airport and that they were waiting for a plane to take them back to Ankara.
Russian officials have complained of attempts to sabotage the conference, but the Kremlin said on Monday it was unfazed by a Syrian opposition decision to boycott the event.
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Sochi; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe