Syrian regime says ready for talks with armed rebels

MOSCOW (AFP) - The Syrian regime is ready for talks with armed rebels and anyone who favours dialogue, President Bashar al-Assad's foreign minister said in Moscow on Monday in the first such offer by a top Syrian official.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of the few big powers to still maintain ties with Assad's regime.

Russia has renewed calls for rebels and regime to engage in direct negotiations to end the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, warning that pressing for a military victory risked destroying Syria.

"We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms," Mr Muallem said at the talks with Mr Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the Assad regime.

"We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem," said Mr Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the "external and internal opposition."

Mr Lavrov said alongside Mr Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

"There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition," said Mr Lavrov.

"The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention," he said.

Mr Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was "at the crossroads" but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

"There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society," he said.

"But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

"The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing," said Mr Lavrov.

Mr Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

Russia has been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community's inability to halt the bloodshed.

The Muallem-Lavrov talks came a day before Russia's top diplomat meets new US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin for the first time, with the Syria crisis expected to be at the top of the agenda.

The diplomatic activity came as there appeared to be no let-up in the fighting which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

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