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Syrian opposition sets conditions for talks

Unclear whether Syrian regime and opposition will travel to Moscow amid conflicting messages

Gulf News

Dubai: The Syrian National Coalition opposition group is ready to negotiate a departure for President Bashar Al Assad with any member of his government who has not participated in the crackdown on the uprising, a high-level coalition member said on Friday.

Coalition president Muath Al Khatib formulated the initiative in broad terms last month without consulting the coalition, catching the 70-member assembly by surprise. A powerful bloc in the coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised group in the political opposition, criticised the initiative as harming the revolution.

After an overnight meeting of the coalition’s 12-member politburo in Cairo, politburo member Walid Al Bunni said the leadership endorses the Al Khatib initiative but has set guidelines for peace talks to be presented for approval by the full 70-member assembly on Thursday.

Al Bunni, one of a handful of liberals in the Islamist-dominated assembly, said that Al Assad and his cohorts in the military and intelligence apparatus cannot be part of any negotiations.

“We are willing to negotiate with any civilian official the removal of [Al] Bashar and the end of despotism,” Al Bunni said from Cairo.

He said members of Al Assad’s Baath Party can participate in the proposed talks if “their hands are clean of blood”.

Amid conflicting statements, it remained unclear whether regime and opposition representatives will be meeting Russian officials in Moscow later this month. Russia, in an apparent effort to start talks, said earlier in the week that it had invited both sides separately to visit and would be glad to help them overcome their resistance to talking with each other. Asked about rumours that Al Khatib could meet Walid Mua’alem, Al Bunni said no date for Al Khatib’s visit has been set and that he was not aware of any possible meeting with the Syrian foreign minister. Syria’s Foreign Ministry however said that the regime was open only to talks inside Syria.

On Thursday, the United Nations denied reports that a new peace plan was being drawn up for Syria involving the creation of a senate to oversee a power transition, as reported by Saudi newspaper Asharq Al Awsat. Members of Syria-based opposition groups tolerated by the regime of Al Assad helped draft the plan, the paper added.

The UN food agency has estimated that 40,000 people have fled the town of Al Shaddadeh in eastern Syria after three days of heavy fighting.

Rebels seized Al Shaddadeh in Syria’s oil-producing east on Thursday after the fighting which killed 30 of their fighters and 100 Syrian troops, a violence monitoring group said.

Violence continued on the ground on Friday. Activists said that some 150 rebels and government troops had been killed in fierce fighting for control of the international airport in the northern city of Aleppo and a major military air base nearby on Friday. Turkish artillery struck back after a shell fired from neighbouring Syria ploughed into Turkish territory without causing any casualties, the state-run news agency reported.

The shell fell near the town of Yayladag in Hatay province near the border with Syria and Turkish forces retaliated immediately, Anatolia said.

Meanwhile, British foreign secretary William Hague warned on Thursday about the jihadist threat to Europe coming from Syria. He said the revolution had been “hijacked” by militants, calling Syria the “number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today”.

— with inputs from Reuters and AP