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Syria says ready for talks with armed rebels

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Published : 2013-02-25 21:47
Updated : 2013-02-25 21:47

MOSCOW (AFP) -- The Syrian regime is ready for talks with armed rebels and anyone who favours dialogue, President Bashar al-Assad's foreign minister said in Moscow on Monday in the first such offer by a top Syrian official.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of the few big powers to still maintain ties with Assad's regime.

Russia has renewed calls for rebels and regime to engage in direct negotiations to end the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, warning that pressing for a military victory risked destroying Syria.

"We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms," Muallem said at the talks with Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the Assad regime.

"We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem," said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the "external and internal opposition."

Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

"There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition," said Lavrov.

"The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention," he said.

Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was "at the crossroads" but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

"There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society," he said.

"But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

"The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing," said Lavrov.

He warned that there was no point for the sides trying to fight towards a "victorious end" and warned Assad's regime not to give into what Lavrov termed "provocations".

"The need. for the Syrian leadership not to allow provocations to prevail has increased manyfold," he said.

Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

Russia has been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community's inability to halt the bloodshed.

The Muallem-Lavrov talks came a day before Russia's top diplomat meets new US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin for the first time, with the Syria crisis expected to be at the top of the agenda.

"We feel that Russia can play a key role in convincing the (Syrian) regime that there is need for political transition," said a State Department official travelling with Kerry.

The United States meanwhile also urged the Khatib-led Syrian opposition to withdraw its threat to pull out of an international meeting in Rome on Thursday that Kerry will attend.

Khatib said on Saturday it was pulling out of the 11-nation meeting of the Friends of Syria to protest at the "shameful" inaction of the international community in the face of civilian killings.

"We are stressing... that they have an opportunity in Rome, to see the countries that have been their greatest supporters and to present to all of us how they see the situation on the ground in security, humanitarian, political and economic terms," said the US official.

The diplomatic activity came as there appeared to be no let-up in the fighting which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

On Sunday alone, according to a toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 105 people were killed in violence across the country.

The Britain-based monitoring group also updated its death toll from Friday's missile attack on the northern city of Aleppo, saying it killed at least 58 people, including 36 children.

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