Russia says Assad blundered as regime courts opposition

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Russia's prime minister on Sunday said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had made a "grave, perhaps fatal error" by delaying political reforms, as Damascus courted opposition forces.

"He should have acted much more quickly and reached out to the peaceful opposition which was ready to sit at the negotiating table with him," Russian news agencies quoted Dmitri Medvedev as saying.

"It's a grave error on his part, perhaps fatal," he said, in a rare criticism of Mr Assad by Syria's traditional ally Moscow. "It seems to me that his chances of staying (in power) are shrinking day by day," Mr Medvedev said in remarks to CNN television on the sidelines of the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

Syria's high judicial council, meanwhile, announced a suspension of prosecutions of opposition members so they can join a national dialogue, state media reported.

"The high judicial council has decided to discontinue all prosecutions against opposition forces and individuals so they may participate in the national dialogue," the official news agency Sana said, without elaborating.

On Saturday, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar vowed to ease the return of opposition members living in exile to allow them to join a national dialogue proposed by Mr Assad on Jan 6.

In a rare speech, Mr Assad proposed a dialogue with opposition figures who were not "slaves of the West" and on condition that "terrorist attacks" came to a halt.

The regime has consistently branded activists and insurgents alike as terrorists.

Shaar, in comments reported by state media, cautioned that the directive allowing Syrian opposition figures living abroad to return was not a blanket amnesty.

He emphasised that "there is a big difference between those who safeguard their nation and those who are complicit in foreign agendas." Mr Medvedev on Sunday reiterated Russia's stand that only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Mr Assad, whose departure the West has long called for in the face of a 22-month uprising that has left over 60,000 dead according to the UN.

"I personally a few times called Assad and said, You need to start reforms, you need to sit at the negotiating table," he said, according to the CNN transcript.

"In my view, unfortunately, the Syrian authorities turned out not to be ready for this."

UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, meanwhile, held talks in Damascus with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and other senior officials, her spokesman Khaled al-Masri told AFP.

The UN said on Jan 21 that it will conduct a major humanitarian operation in Syria.

Social Affairs Minister Jassem Zakaria, who also met Amos, urged UN humanitarian agencies to respect their pledges towards families hit by the conflict, Sana reported.

Due to deteriorating security, the UN decided at the start of December to suspend operations in Syria and withdrew non-essential foreign staff.

Zakaria also protested over the "bad living conditions of Syrian families in camps (abroad) when Syria has been offering to help all those who take refuge (on its territory), without a single tent having to be erected."

Almost 600,000 Syrians out of an estimated total of two million displaced have fled to neighbouring countries, many of them living in tent camps. The UN says four million Syrians have been left in need of emergency aid.

On the ground in Syria, violence raged on Sunday between rebels and loyalists, costing at least 67 lives, including 24 civilians, 19 rebels and 24 soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Fighting erupted in the Port Said area of south Damascus and spread to the nearby Qadam train terminal, while the army shelled nearby districts.

On the Damascus outskirts, warplanes pounded the Eastern Ghuta region, the watchdog said, while an activist network reported shelling against the southwest suburb of Daraya from Mazzeh military airport by the elite Fourth Division.

A Syrian security source told AFP late last year that the army's bid to push insurgents from their rear bases around Damascus was aimed at securing an upper hand in any future dialogue.

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