Syria opposition chief says he's ready for talks with government

File picture dated 10 December 2012 shows Syria's opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib arriving at the EU Headquarters in Brussels prior to a Foreign Affairs Council meeting. (Photo: AFP - Georges Gobet)

Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The head of Syria's main foreign-based opposition coalition, Mouaz Al-Khatib, said on Wednesday he was ready to hold talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad outside Syria if authorities released tens of thousands of detainees.

Syrian officials said this week that political opposition figures could return to Damascus for "national dialogue" and that any charges against them would be dropped.

The Syrian National Council, which was the most internationally recognized external opposition group prior to the formation of the coalition, slammed the remarks.

“The Syrian National Council confirms that [Khatib's] statements do not reflect the Syrian National Coalition's stance, and contradicts the coalition's basic structure and the Doha agreement that created the coalition,” a statement released by the group on Facebook said.

The Syrian National Council is a major member of the external coalition.

That followed a speech Assad gave three weeks ago in which he called for reconciliation talks, but said there would be no dialogue with opponents he called "terrorists".

Assad has been trying to crush a 22-month-old uprising which began in March 2011 with mainly peaceful political protests but has escalated into a civil war in which 60,000 people have died.

"I am prepared to sit down directly with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunis or Istanbul," Alkhatib said in a statement on his Facebook page.

He set out two conditions of his own: the release of what he said was 160,000 detainees held in Syrian prisons and intelligence facilities, and instructions to Syrian embassies to issue new passports to Syrians whose documents had expired.

Assad announced in early January plans for a reconciliation conference with opposition figures "who have not betrayed Syria", though he said the must first be an end to regional funding and arming of rebels fighting to overthrow him.

"Should we speak to gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of foreigners? Should we have official dialogue with a puppet made by the West, which has scripted its lines?" he said.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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