SNC to attend Geneva II talks, as Assad denies attributed comments

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A handout picture released by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) shows SNC president Ahmad Jarba speaking during a press conference on January 18, 2014 at a hotel in a suburb of Istanbul.(Photo: AFP /Syrian National Coalition Media)

Published Sunday, January 19, 2014

The deeply divided Syrian National Coalition finally agreed Saturday to join the international peace conference, saying it wanted to remove Assad from power, a day after Damascus offered concessions.

The Coalition, an externally-based Syrian opposition group, had been under intense international pressure to attend the conference, which aims to find a way out of the brutal conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and made millions homeless since March 2011.

The exiled Coalition voted by 58 votes to 14 with two abstentions and one blank vote at a meeting in Istanbul to attend the so-called Geneva II talks.

That meant just 75 of the around 120 opposition delegates took part in the secret ballot, in a sign that strong disagreements persist.

Leader Ahmad Jarba said the umbrella group would be there with the sole aim of removing Assad from power.

"The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution... and first and foremost stripping the butcher (Assad) of all his powers," he said.

More than 35 countries will gather in the Swiss cities of Montreux and Geneva from Wednesday for talks on setting up a transitional government to lead the country, in line with a 2012 deal.

The Coalition, a grouping of myriad organizations, has long struggled to put forward a united front during the civil war, rocked by infighting over its leadership and efforts to form a government in exile.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government denied on Sunday that President Bashar al-Assad had said he has no intention of giving up power, a day after Syria's main political opposition group in exile agreed to attend peace talks and said three rebel fighting forces also wanted to take part.

The office of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad denied comments attributed to him Sunday by Russian news agency Interfax.

"What the Russian news agency Interfax has published as comments made by President Assad are inaccurate," said the Syrian presidency's press office.

Interfax had quoted Assad as saying that "if we wanted to give up, we would have done so at the very beginning. We are on guard for our country. This issue is not up for discussion."

The January 22 talks in Montreux, Switzerland are seen as the most serious global effort yet to end Syria's three-year conflict, during which Assad has enjoyed Russia's protection.

The United Nations hopes the talks will bring about a political transition in the country, and US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that Syria's future had no place for Assad.

Syria, however, said in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that its focus at the peace conference would be on fighting "terrorism.”

In a surprise move in Moscow on Friday, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem presented his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a security plan aimed at halting "all military actions" in the devastated northern city of Aleppo.

Muallem also said the government was willing to swap prisoners with the rebels in the first such mass exchange since the conflict erupted, while Lavrov said Damascus was ready to take "a series of humanitarian steps" to improve the delivery of aid.

On Saturday, food aid entered the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus - where dozens of people are reported to have died of hunger and lack of medical care - for the first time in four months.

Syria, Muallem said, would "make every effort to ensure Geneva II is a success and meets the aspirations of the Syrian people and the direct orders of President Bashar al-Assad."

UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres, meanwhile, pleaded for the world to ease the massive burden on countries sheltering the millions of refugees and to open their borders to those fleeing the war.

He was speaking at a meeting in Turkey on Friday of regional countries on the refugee crisis after the United Nations launched a massive $6.5-billion appeal for aid.

"For me it is unacceptable to see Syrian refugees drowning, dying in the Mediterranean or pushed back at some borders," he said.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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