Syrian government ready to talk with armed groups - minister

BEIRUT Tue Feb 19, 2013 12:36am IST

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks through a damaged apartment near Al Neirab airport in Aleppo February 17, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks through a damaged apartment near Al Neirab airport in Aleppo February 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Hamid Khatib

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria is prepared to talk to armed opposition groups, the minister for national reconciliation said on Monday, the first time the government has offered to hold direct negotiations with rebel forces it long dismissed as terrorists.

It was not clear if the comments by Ali Haidar, who is not in President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle of decision-makers, reflect a substantive change in policy.

Assad said in January that there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".

The political chasm between the government and rebels and a lack of opposition influence over rebel fighters has allowed fighting to rage on for 23 months in Syria. The United Nations says almost 70,000 people have been killed.

An international diplomatic deadlock has prevented effective intervention.

Syrian authorities have given no formal response to several offers of talks by the main opposition coalition. Haidar said last week that Damascus had not received an invitation to talks.

"We, the government and me personally, will meet, without exceptions, Syrian opposition groups inside and outside (Syria)," he said on Monday during a parliamentary session.

"The president of the country has said that we will try with everyone that is against us politically. And even those who use arms - we must try with them," he said, without giving details.

He cautioned that any "preparatory talks" were different to the National Dialogue, a reconciliation proposal by Assad that officials have said should be held in Damascus and only with members of the opposition "without blood on their hands".

"With regard to negotiations, the door is open," Haidar said.

George Sabra, a vice-president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said guidelines which the coalition's politburo will present for discussion in a full assembly on Thursday spelled out that there would be no dialogue before Assad and his closest entourage step down.

"(The guidelines stipulate) no formal and informal talks with the Syrian regime if Bashar al-Assad and his team is still in power," Sabra told Reuters at a conference in Stockholm.

"They have to leave power. Then we can start the dialogue, with the others which didn't give any orders to kill people, to damage the country."

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir said that recent visitors to Damascus had portrayed Assad as confident of ultimate success, although he said the battle was not yet over.

"Even if we are convinced of the certainty of our victory, and reassured by what has been achieved militarily and politically, that does not mean that everything is finished," they quoted him as saying, according to the paper.

"We still have a great deal of work in front of us - political, and in confronting the ... terrorist groups," it cited Assad as saying.

International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi called on Sunday for talks at United Nations offices between the opposition and an "acceptable delegation" from the Damascus government on a political solution to the war.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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