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A demonstrator near the venue of the of the Geneva II peace talks, January 22, 2014. Photo by AP

Syria's government and its enemies came face to face for the first time on Wednesday at a one-day peace conference in Switzerland which world powers hope can at least start a process to end three years of civil war.

There was immediate evidence of sharp differences, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that President Bashar Assad must step down, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cautioned against outsiders meddling in Syria's affairs.

Syria's foreign minister, speaking before the opposition, exchanged sharp words with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he spoke well beyond a 10-minute limit that Ban had set as chairman. Walid al-Moualem painted a graphic picture of "terrorist" rebel atrocities supported by states present in the room and insisted Assad would not be forced out by foreigners.

Syria's foreign minister, directly addressing Kerry, said no one has the right to remove Assad except Syrians. Moallem addressed the Wednesday opening of a peace conference on Syria just after Kerry, who said Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead and would have no place in a transitional government.

Al-Moallem also refused to give up the podium to Ban Ki-moon, telling the UN chief: "You live in New York, I live in Syria."

Ban had opened what will be a full day of speeches at Montreux on Lake Geneva from more than 40 delegations by citing human rights abuses by all the warring parties and calling for immediate access to humanitarian aid for areas under siege.

"After nearly three painful years of conflict and suffering in Syria, today is a day of fragile but real hope," Ban said, urging both sides to reach a comprehensive settlement based on the UN Geneva Communique, under which world powers called in 2012 for a transitional government to oversee change in Syria.

"Great challenges lie ahead but they are not insurmountable," he added.

Western powers and Russia have sought to set aside their own sharp differences over whether Assad must be forced to make way for an interim administration and have backed the conference as a way to stop the spread of communal and sectarian violence spreading across the region.

The conference, which Ban hopes will be followed by further talks in Geneva, has raised no great expectations, particularly among Islamist rebels on Syria's frontlines who have branded Western-backed opposition leaders as traitors for even agreeing to be in the same room as Assad's delegates.

Underlining the seemingly intractable positions, Moualem had said on Tuesday that Assad's position was non-negotiable. "The subject of the president and the regime is a red line for us and the Syrian people and will not be touched," he was quoted as saying in Syrian media.

Lavrov, co-sponsor of the conference with Kerry, repeated Moscow's opposition to "outside players" meddling in Syria's affairs. But he also said Iran - Assad's main foreign backer - should have a say.

Kerry, in his brief speech to the floor, said negotiations would be "tough and complicated" but insisted: "We see only one option, negotiating a transition government born by mutual consent.

"That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible, that a man who has led a brutal response to his own people can regain legitimacy to govern."

Assad backer Iran was not present. A last-minute invitation from Ban to attend was revoked on Monday after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks, since Iran shares Assad's view that he should not lose power.

Iranian President Hasan Rohani said that made it unlikely the conference could succeed: "Because of the lack of influential players in the meeting, I doubt about the Geneva 2 meeting's success in fighting against terrorism ... and its ability to resolve the Syria crisis," Rohani said.

"The Geneva 2 meeting has already failed without it even being started," he was quoted as saying by IRNA news agency - though he added he would be pleased if it did help bring peace.