Syria says ready for talks with armed rebels

The authorities in Damascus are ready for talks with armed rebels and anyone who favours dialogue, President Bashar al-Assad's foreign minister said in Moscow on Monday, in the first such offer by a top Syrian official.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was in Moscow for talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country is one of the few big powers to still maintain ties with Assad's regime.

Russia has renewed calls for rebels and regime to engage in direct negotiations to end the two-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, warning that pressing for a military victory risked destroying Syria.

"We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms," Muallem said.

Armed rebels have battled the Assad regime since the start of an uprising against his rule in March 2011 and now control swathes of Syrian territory, especially in the north.

"We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem," said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the "external and internal opposition."

But the rebel Free Syrian Army's chief of staff Selim Idriss said that before any dialogue could begin, Assad's regime must fall, among other pre-conditions.

"I am not going to sit down with him or with any other member of his clique before all the killing stops, or before the army withdraws from the cities," he told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya.

The Moscow talks came a day before Russia’s top diplomat meets new US Secretary of State John Kerry in Berlin for the first time, with the Syria crisis topping the agenda.

Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

The opposition on Monday went back on a decision to suspend their participation in talks with foreign powers, a boycott aimed at protesting the international community's inability to halt the bloodshed in their country.

Kerry earlier urged the Khatib-led Syrian opposition to withdraw its threat to pull out of Friends of Syria meeting he will attend in Rome on Thursday.

"I would urge the Syrian opposition to join us as a matter of practicality and of informing us," Kerry told a news conference in London.

"I want our friends in the Syrian opposition council to know that we are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We are coming to Rome to make a decision on next steps."

Khatib said last week that the Coalition was pulling out of the 11-nation meeting of the Friends of Syria to protest at the "shameful" inaction of the international community over civilian killings.

But on Monday he said the decision was reversed after Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague had "promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people".

Lavrov said the situation in Syria was "at the crossroads", with different factions pressing for conflict and talks. But he expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

"There are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement."

Throughout the conflict, opposition by Russia and its diplomatic ally China has prevented attempts by the West to pass UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Assad's regime.

-- UN rights chief criticised UNSC --

The UN human rights chief on Monday criticised the Security Council's failure to take action.

"The Security Council has so far failed with regard to Syria," Navi Pillay told ministers at the start of a regular UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.

The diplomatic activity came as there appeared to be no let-up in the fighting which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011.

The Syrian observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that at least 30 Syrian troops and 23 rebels were killed over the past 24 hours in fierce clashes for control of a police academy in the northern Aleppo province.

It also reported that rebels shot down a regime helicopter near a military base elsewhere in the north of the province as insurgents pressed on with attacks on the police academy in the west.

At least 53 combattants -- 23 rebels including a battalion commander and 30 Syrian troops -- were killed over the past 24 hours in the fighting outside the town of Khan Assal, the Britain-based Observatory said.

The watchdog, which relies on a vast network of activists on the ground and medics, said at least 92 people were killed in violence across Syria on Monday.