Lavrov blasts Syria opposition 'extremists' before key talks

Russia's foreign minister on Tuesday slammed "extremists" in the Syrian opposition who he said were blocking the start of dialogue with Damascus by making unrealistic demands, ahead of talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Hours before he was due to meet Kerry, Sergei Lavrov said that recent faint hopes that dialogue was possible between the opposition and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had dissipated.

"It seems that extremists who bet on an armed solution to the Syrian problem have prevailed in the ranks of the opposition at this time, including the so-called (Syrian) National Coalition, blocking all initiatives that could lead to the start of dialogue," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem had said in Moscow Monday that the authorities in Damascus were ready to talk to armed rebels, the first time a senior official of the Assad regime had made such a proposal.

But the rebel Free Syrian Army's chief of staff Selim Idriss dismissed Muallem's offer.

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

Kerry meets his Russian counterpart here later Tuesday in a bid to bridge differences between Moscow and Washington over Syria, after convincing the war-torn country's opposition to take part in an international meeting on the conflict.

Russia is one of the few big powers to keep ties with the Assad regime amid the conflict with rebels and together with China has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have introduced sanctions against Damascus.

"He (Lavrov) and I know each other very well. I am anxious to have a chance to sit down with him," Kerry told a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

He said "a lot of topics" would be on the agenda but declined to comment further before the meeting had taken place.

Kerry, on an 11-day tour of Europe and the Middle East, his first foreign trip since taking over the office, earlier told an event in Berlin with youngsters that he and Lavrov had a "good relationship".

"I am confident we will find common ground," he said.

After denouncing Moscow's intransigence over Syria for months, Washington has recently toned down its criticism.

"We've been absolutely clear that there needs to be a political transition, and we felt that Russia could play a key role in convincing the regime... that there needs to be that political transition," a State Department official told reporters.

However Kerry is not expecting "a big breakthrough" at the meeting, the official added.

Lavrov said after meeting Muallem in Moscow Monday there was "no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition".

But, said Lavrov, the Syrian people must decide their fate "without external intervention".

-- 'Decision on next steps' in Rome --

Syria's opposition has been calling for the international community to do more -- the United Nations says the fighting has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 -- and warned last week it would withdraw from an international conference in Rome planned for Thursday.

But Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague convinced the Syrian National Coalition Monday to revoke its boycott of the 11-nation Friends of Syria meeting after an appeal at a joint press conference in London.

Syrian National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib said on his Facebook page his group would attend after Kerry and Hague "promised specific aid to alleviate the suffering of our people".

Kerry said it would be a "mistake to start laying out what we are going to do before we've consulted and before we've all come together to make those decisions," he added.

"So we will see where we are when we get to Rome," he added.

But in London, Kerry had insisted he wanted the Syrian opposition to know "that we are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We are coming to Rome to make a decision on next steps".

Kerry, on taking over the job from Hillary Clinton in early February, spoke of a diplomatic initiative on Syria soon.

The trip sees Kerry, the son of a diplomat, back on familiar ground. He spent part of his childhood in Berlin and has family in France.

Meanwhile fierce fighting erupted around the historic Umayyad Mosque in Syria's second city Aleppo Tuesday, as rebels battled troops on the grounds of a police academy elsewhere in the province, a watchdog said.