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Sharp setbacks for Syria opposition chief's talks offer

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A proposal by a Syrian opposition leader for peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's regime has suffered sharp setbacks, with Damascus ignoring it and a key opposing faction flatly rejecting the initiative.

The peace offering by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition National Coalition, has been welcomed by Washington and the Arab League and was expected to receive further support Wednesday from leaders of Islamic nations meeting in Cairo.

Assad himself has yet to comment on the offer by Khatib, who says "the ball is now in the regime's court", but the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper said the offer came two years too late.

The Syrian National Council, the main component of the Coalition, rejected the possibility of any talks, saying it was committed to ousting Assad's regime, rejecting dialogue with it, and protecting the revolution.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Cairo on Wednesday will call for "serious dialogue" between the Syrian opposition and government officials "not directly involved in oppression," according to a draft resolution obtained by AFP.

The document stresses the need to maintain "Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty", while underlining that "the main responsibility for the continued violence falls on the Syrian government".

The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which began as an anti-regime uprising but deteriorated into civil war when Assad's forces used violence to put down protests.

Khatib's offer on Monday followed his surprise announcement last week that he was ready for talks with Assad's regime, subject to conditions including the release of 160,000 detainees.

Khatib later elaborated, saying he was ready to meet Assad's deputy, Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa.

In the past the opposition has demanded Assad step down before talks can begin but analysts say Khatib's change in stance stems from a belief the population will be bled dry while the West fails to act.

Experts have also predicted Damascus would reject outright Khatib's overture, and Al-Watan paper hinted that this would indeed be the case.

"Despite their importance, the statements of Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib are two years late. During that time, our finest young men have died, suffered wounds or been exiled, while we have lost our electricity and fuel infrastructure, alongside several military positions," the daily said.

"So the ball is not in the Syrian state's hands, as Khatib said."

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi threw his weight behind Khatib's offer, however, and offered to play a role in any negotiations for a democratic transition.

The US strongly backed Khatib's dialogue call too, with the State Department saying the regime "should sit down and talk," while stressing its position was unchanged on bringing to account those who have committed atrocities.

Assad last month announced he was ready for talks with the opposition but ruled out meeting groups such as the National Coalition, which backs rebels seeking to overthrow his regime.

On the ground, a suicide bomber on Wednesday attacked a military intelligence headquarters in the south-central Syria city of Palmyra, killing and wounding an unknown number of people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory could not immediately give a more detailed breakdown of the toll.

It said that on Tuesday, 106 people died across Syria -- 42 rebels, 37 civilians and 27 soldiers.

The United Nations, meanwhile, said Wednesday that the number of people fleeing fighting in Syria could reach 1.1 million by June, as it warned of crisis "fatigue" among developed nations.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in Tokyo the international community needed to support a $1 billion plan, pushed by his and other international groups, to address the needs of those displaced by the Syrian conflict.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130206/sharp-setbacks-syria-opposition-chiefs-talks-offer