x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Syrian opposition rejects Assad talks offer

Group says demands that should be met include an end to violence, release of prisoners, aid pledge and information on the missing.

Free Syrian Army fighters monitor Menagh military airport in Aleppo's countryside.
Free Syrian Army fighters monitor Menagh military airport in Aleppo's countryside.

DAMASCUS // One of Syria's opposition groups yesterday rejected an offer to enter into talks with the government of the president, Bashar Al Assad, to find a solution to end the 21-month conflict.

The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria issued its verdict even as the prime minister, Wael Al Halaqi, said his cabinet would meet soon to draw up a mechanism for the road map to peace announced on Sunday by Mr Al Assad.

During his first speech in seven months, the president outlined his vision for a way out of the deadly conflict, calling for an end to the violence and a dialogue with opposition figures he deemed acceptable to chart a future course.

"We will not take part in a national dialogue before violence stops," said Hassan Abdel Azim, the head of the opposition group, setting the first of several conditions for talks with the regime.

He also demanded that any dialogue be preceded by the release of prisoners, a guarantee to ensure humanitarian aid was delivered to areas hit by the violence, and the publication of a statement on the fate of missing Syrians.

"Any negotiation - not just a national dialogue - must be held under the aegis of the UN-Arab League envoy" Lakhdar Brahimi, he added.

"There won't be direct negotiations or dialogue with the regime," he stressed.

Yesterday, Syria's state media reported that government troops had repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo.

The official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a "terrorist group" in the fighting on Sunday night, but did not give a number.

The government and the pro-regime media refer to the rebels seeking to topple Mr Al Assad as terrorists.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school.

Rebels have recently made gains around the city, as well as in the east and in the capital, Damascus, bringing the civil war closer to the seat of Mr Al Assad's power.

Fighting continued unabated yesterday, as Nato Patriot missiles were on their way from the Netherlands to Turkey's border with Syria to join those being deployed by Germany and the United States, as western governments redouble their calls for Mr Al Assad to quit.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels clashed with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Daraya, south of the capital.

It said the army sent reinforcements there to join in an offensive aimed at dislodging the rebels from the district, which is just a few kilometres from a strategic military airbase west of the capital.

The towns and cities around Damascus have seen relentless fighting in recent weeks as rebels tried to push through the government's heavy defences in the capital.

The regime has responded with withering counterattacks that included barrages by artillery and warplanes.

During his speech on Sunday, Mr Al Assad sketched out his terms for a peace plan but dismissed any chance of dialogue with the opposition, labelling them "murderous criminals" who were responsible for nearly two years of violence.

Nearly 60,000 people have died since the uprising began, according to a recent United Nations estimate. Western nations, including the US and Britain, denounced Mr Al Assad's speech, which came amid stepped-up international efforts to find a peaceful settlement.

On Monday, the UN leader, Ban Ki-moon, said Mr Al Al Assad's speech would not help end "the terrible suffering" of the Syrian people.

"The secretary general was disappointed that the speech by president Bashar Al Assad does not contribute to a solution that could end the terrible suffering of the Syrian people," said Martin Nesirky, a UN spokesman.

* Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press