Syria to renew passports, in apparent concession

The Syrian regime has decided to renew the passports of any of nationals in embassies abroad, in an apparent concession to the opposition, according to documents seen by AFP.

The interior ministry said in a circular that it has authorised "the renewal for two to four years of passports and travel documents belonging to Syrian citizens abroad".

"Passports will now be renewed regardless of the reasons that had earlier prevented their renewal, and without obtaining the necessary authorisations," said the circular.

The decision was published on Saturday and authorised by Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar.

Also reported by pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan, it comes with the regime and opposition facing strong international pressure to engage in talks to end a civil war that has cost at least 70,000 lives.

Last month, opposition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib had called for the renewal of passports as one of two main conditions for talks with regime officials, along with the release of 160,000 prisoners.

Some 10 million Syrians live abroad, many of them opponents of the Assad regime.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the country during the spiralling 23-month conflict, many through illegal border crossings.

Others were exiled before the uprising because of their opposition to President Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez, including many leaders of the opposition National Coalition headed by Khatib.

In January, following a dialogue plan proposed by Assad, the regime issued a circular aimed at "facilitating the return to the country of Syrian nationals".

It also called on foreign-based opponents to return, regardless of whether their travel documents were up to date.