Middle East

Syria opposition leader al-Khatib urges Assad to negotiate

Syrian government soldier in Darya, near Damascus. 4 Feb 2013
Image caption Syrian troops are fighting bitter street battles with rebels

Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib has urged President Bashar al-Assad to respond to his offer of peace talks.

Mr Khatib, recently elected head of the Syrian National Coalition, called on Mr Assad to give his vice-president the task of opening negotiations.

He said the aim would be to help the Syrian regime stand down peacefully, to spare further bloodshed.

The US has backed Mr Khatib's initiative but there has been no response so far from Damascus.

The opposition leader dismayed many of his colleagues last week with his offer to talk to government officials provided 160,000 prisoners were freed.

The opposition has previously insisted President Assad step down before any talks begin.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in neighbouring Lebanon, says that as fighting continues there seems to be a growing awareness on both sides that a stalemate is setting in and a political solution may be the only way out.

"I ask the regime to send (Vice-President) Farouq al-Sharaa - if it accepts the idea - and we can sit with him," Mr Khatib told al-Arabiya TV.

"The issue is now in the state's court... to accept negotiations for departure, with fewer losses."

He said it was not "treachery" to seek dialogue to end the conflict.

In separate comments to al-Jazeera TV he said: "The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully."

Mr Khatib held talks in Munich over the weekend with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Salehi and Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister of Syria's other key ally Russia.

He also met US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Our correspondent says it shows that new lines of communication have been opened up.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday that Syria's problems could not be solved by military means and called for "national understanding and free elections".

Army 'strong'

Syrian Defence Minister Fahd al-Freij admitted on Monday that the army was overstretched and had abandoned some outlying positions in order to save lives.

But in a defiant message he told state TV: "This heroic Syrian Arab army proved to the world that it is a strong army, a trained army, an army that cannot be broken."

The Syrian government is, meanwhile, pushing ahead with preparations for a national dialogue conference and a referendum on a national charter.

However, President Assad said there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".

His speech last month was described by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as "narrow and uncompromising".

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 22-month conflict between the Assad government and rebel groups.

Opposition activists reported clashes between the army and rebels to the east of Damascus on Monday and heavy shelling of rebel-held areas in the central city of Homs.

The UN says it fears the continuing violence could destabilise the whole region.

More than 600,000 Syrians have fled into neighbouring countries to escape the violence, the UN refugee agency says.

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