Russia says Syria agrees to peace talks with opposition amid mounting pressures


Russia on Monday said the Syrian authorities have agreed to a Russian offer to hold informal talks in Moscow with opposition representatives to resolve the crisis in the country, a day before the U.N Security Council discusses a draft resolution calling for a political transition in Syria.

Russia had suggested to both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition that they should meet in Moscow for “informal contacts” without any preconditions, the foreign ministry said.

“Our offer has already received a positive response from the Syrian authorities. We are expecting that the opposition will also give their assent in the next days and put the interests of the Syrian people before any other ideas,” it said.

But a senior member of the Syrian opposition said that the Syrian National Council had not received any formal invitation to attend talks with Syria’s authorities in Russia, and would decline if one arrived.

“We have not received any offer like that officially and I think, if such an offer exists, it will be no more than an attempt to influence the (U.N.) Security Council. But I say clearly that our position has not changed and it is that there is no dialogue with (President Bashar al-Assad),” Abdel Baset Seda, a member of the Syrian council’s executive committee, told Reuters.

He was speaking by telephone from New York, where he was following the Arab League’s bid to win support from the Security Council for its Syria peace plan.

Western powers Britain and France want the Security Council to vote next week on a draft resolution supporting the Arab League plan’s call for President Bashar al- Assad to step down. Arab League chief Nabil el-Araby has said he hopes to overcome resistance from Beijing and Moscow.

France and Britain drew up the resolution in consultation with Qatar and Morocco, as well as Germany, Portugal and the United States. France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, is also due to attend Tuesday’s Council meeting to try to push through the resolution.

“We believe the U.N. must act to support the people of Syria and that Russia can no longer explain blocking the U.N. and providing cover for the regime’s brutal repression,” a UK Foreign Office spokeswoman told Reuters.

Violence goes on

A permanent Security Council member with veto power, Russia has been increasingly isolated in support for Assad as the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters goes on.

Street battles raged on the doorstep of the Syrian capital on Monday, as President Assad’s troops sought to consolidate their grip on suburbs rebel fighters had taken only a few miles from the center of Assad’s power.

Activists and residents said Syrian troops now had control of Hamouriyeh, one of a cluster of districts where they have used armored vehicles and artillery to beat back rebels who came as close as eight km (five miles) to Damascus.

An activist said the Free Syrian Army - a force of military defectors with links to Syria’s divided political opposition - mounted scattered attacks on government troops who advanced through the district of Saqba, held by rebels just days ago.

“Street fighting has been raging since dawn,” he said, adding tanks were moving through a central avenue of the neighborhood. “The sound of gunfire is everywhere.”

The rebels said at least 15 people had been killed as they pulled back in Saqba and Kfar Batna. Activists have claimed a death toll of several dozen in three days of fighting in the districts, which have seen repeated protests against Assad’s rule and crackdowns by troops on the 10-month-old uprising.

The escalating bloodshed prompted the Arab League to suspend the work of its monitors on Saturday. Arab foreign ministers, who have urged Assad to step down and make way for a government of national unity, will discuss the crisis on Feb. 5.

Syria’s state news agency said “terrorists” blew up a gas pipeline, a frequent target during the uprising against Assad, and residents of the southern city of Deraa - where unrest first erupted - said army defectors and government troops were waging gun battles that left at least 20 dead, most of them government forces.

Syria restricts access to the country for journalists and the numbers could not be immediately verified.