UN leader urges Syria to accept opposition talks offer

NEW YORK (AFP) - UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad to accept an offer by the head of the opposition coalition for peace talks.

The offer by National Coalition leader Moaz al-Khatib to talk with "is an opportunity we should not miss - a chance to switch from a devastating military logic to a promising political approach," Mr Ban said on Monday in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This was a courageous offer by Mr al-Khatib. I urge both the Syrian government and the Security Council to respond positively," Mr Ban said.

"It is time for a clean break from Syria's past, and for a decisive turn toward a future where Syrians are able to express their political views freely, without fear of arbitrary arrest or killing - a Syria where the human rights of all are protected.

The Security Council, currently divided over Syria, "must no longer stand on the sidelines, dead-locked, silently witnessing the slaughter," said Mr Ban.

"It must be willing, at long last, to come together and establish the parameters for the democratic transition that could save Syria."

He said: "Let us also draw a broader lesson: in the Arab world and elsewhere, people want real change, not grudging, cosmetic adjustments."

Mr Khatib said in Cairo on Monday that he had received "no clear response" from the Assad regime over his offer of dialogue.

Mr Khatib said in late January he was prepared to hold direct talks with regime representatives who did not have "blood on their hands," and so long as the discussions addressed replacing Mr Assad.

The Assad regime had said it was open to talks but with no pre-conditions.

Mr Khatib's initial offer was met with support from the United States and the Arab League and also from Syria's allies Russia and Iran, with which the opposition leader recently held talks.

But the call for dialogue also sparked tension within the opposition coalition, whose key member, the Syrian National Council, is vehemently opposed to talks with the regime until Mr Assad steps down.

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