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Russia warns Syria rivals risk 'mutual destruction'

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russia on Wednesday urged the warring sides in Syria to halt their almost two-year conflict and start talks, warning that seeking a military settlement risked mutual destruction.

"It's time to end this two-year conflict," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and other top Arab diplomats.

"Neither side can allow itself to bet on a military settlement as this is a path to nowhere, a path to mutual destruction," he said.

Lavrov, who on Monday is due to host Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for crucial talks, said Moscow was working to encourage dialogue between the rebels and regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"There are signs of positive tendencies, signs of tendencies for dialogue both from the side of the government and the opposition," he said.

But he said it was up to the two sides to decide what kind of dialogue might take place and at what level.

"It is important that they do not come out with any conditions for each other and say that I am going to talk to this person but not that one."

The fighting -- which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 -- has further intensified in the last days as both sides press for the military advantage.

Insurgents fired mortar rounds at one of Assad's palaces in the Syrian capital on Tuesday. The day before, an apparent surface-to-surface missile attack flattened a residential area of Aleppo city, killing at least 31 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Moscow, unlike other world powers, still keeps close ties with the regime of Assad and has infuriated the West and some Arab states by refusing to halt military cooperation with Damascus.

Lavrov confirmed that Russia was working on agreeing a trip to Moscow by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib who has previously been unwilling to visit Russia over its past support for the regime.

"We are agreeing a date of a visit here by Mr Khatib, which will probably happen at the start of March," said Lavrov.

He said the diplomacy was aimed at "creating the conditions for the start of direct dialogue" between the regime and opposition.

"What is needed is that the sides sit at the negotiating table," said Lavrov.

He said there were signs of a new readiness on the part of the Syrian opposition for dialogue and it was vital that this was met by similar moves on the part the Syrian government.

"The government has long talked about this but now has come the time when words have to be put into concrete deeds," said Lavrov.

"We count on this happening and we will work to make sure it does happen."

Lavrov was speaking after a meeting of the formal session of the so-called Russian-Arab Forum that was founded in December 2009 but failed to meet as tensions rose between Moscow and regional states over the Arab Spring uprisings.

As well as Arabi, the talks included the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt. However the top diplomats of Qatar and Saudi Arabia -- who have been strongly supportive of the Syrian opposition and critical of Moscow -- were conspicuously absent.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130220/russia-warns-syria-rivals-risk-mutual-destruction