Syria ‘agrees’ to peace conference

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The Syrian government has agreed to a conference on the country’s future proposed by Russia and the United States, Russia’s foreign ministry said yesterday.

The Syrian government had “agreed in principle” to participate in the conference in Geneva which is expected within two weeks, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in televised remarks.

Mr Lukashevich, however, said that it was impossible to set the date for the conference at this point because there is “no clarity about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have”. Opposition groups have spoken against President Bashar Assad’s representatives taking part.

Mr Lukashevich also said Moscow “was not encouraged” by the results of recent meetings of members of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Mr Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.

It was the first confirmation that Mr Assad’s government would be willing to take part in the talks with the opposition.

But despite the announcement from Moscow, one of Mr Assad’s staunchest allies, Damascus has not offered any definitive statement on the proposed talks.

Russia and the US joined efforts earlier this month to convene an international conference to bring representatives of Assad’s regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. The aim of the talks would be to establish the outlines of a transitional government as a way out of the crisis.

The US-Russian plan, similar to the one set out last year in Geneva, calls for talks on a transitional government and an open-ended ceasefire.

The Moscow announcement came after days of talks there between Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and Russian officials.

In Turkey, where the Syrian National Coalition is holding a three-day conference, an opposition figure expressed doubts over Moscow’s announcement.

“We are very supportive of the (U.S.-Russian) initiative. Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith. We would like to hear enough (from Damascus) to know that they are serious about these negotiations,” said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition coalition.

The US, with key European and Arab supporters of Syria’s opposition, has said that Mr Assad must relinquish power at the start of a transition period. Russia, however, has not committed to his departure and the Syrian leader has said he will not step down before his term ends next year.

Fighting continued across Syria yesterday, and state media reported that rebels fired mortar shells at the central prison in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, killing and wounding several inmates.

The pro-opposition Aleppo Media Centre said clashes were under way between rebels and government troops at the prison.

Early reports said that a large fire had broken out at the 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense fighting was also continuing in the western Syrian town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon.