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Syrian opposition chief says offers Assad peaceful exit

A truck damaged after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, is seen in Binsh near Idlib Jan
A truck damaged after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, is seen in Binsh near Idlib Jan

By Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib urged President Bashar al-Assad on Monday to respond to his initiative for dialogue, saying it was aimed at ending the bloodshed and helping "the regime leave peacefully".

Speaking after meeting senior Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials at the weekend, Alkahtib said none of them had a plan to end the civil war and Syrians must find their own resolution.

"The big powers have no vision ... Only the Syrian people can decide on the solution," the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Jazeera Television.

The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week he was prepared to talk to Assad's representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on contacts with authorities and dismayed many in opposition ranks who insist on Assad's departure as a precondition for negotiation.

Alkhatib said it was not "treachery" to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.

"The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully," he told the Qatar-based channel. "It is now in the hands of the regime."

Assad announced last month what he said were plans for reconciliation talks to end the violence but - in a speech described by U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as narrow and uncompromising - he said there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".

Syria's uprising erupted 22 months ago with largely peaceful protests, escalating into a civil war that pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority and whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

POWERS DIVIDED

The violence has divided major powers, with Russia and China blocking U.N. Security Council draft resolutions backed by the United States, European Union and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states that could have led to U.N. sanctions on Assad. Shi'ite Iran has remained his strongest regional backer.

Alkhatib said that the international deadlock meant that only Syrians could stave off further humanitarian disaster.

"We will find a solution, there are many keys," he said. "If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime."

One proposal under discussion was the formation of a transitional government, Alkhatib said, without specifying how he thought it could come about. World powers agreed a similar formula seven months ago but then disagreed over whether that could allow Assad to stay on as head of state.

Activists reported clashes between the army and rebel fighters to the east of Damascus on Monday and heavy shelling of rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs. The Jobar neighborhood, on the southwestern edge of Homs, was hit by more than 100 rockets on Monday morning, one activist said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 180 people had been killed across the country on Sunday, including 114 rebel fighters and soldiers. Sunday's death toll also included 28 people killed in the bombardment of a building in the Ansari district of the northern city of Aleppo.

Assad has described the rebel fighters as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists and said a precondition for any solution is that Turkey and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states stop funding, sheltering and arming his foes.

Rebels and activists say Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite military group Hezbollah have sent fighters to reinforce Assad's army - a charge that both deny.

ECONOMIC SUPPORT

"The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Berlin on Monday.

"We are giving them economic support, we are sending gasoline, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq, we have not been successful."

Another Iranian official, speaking in Damascus after talks with Assad, said on Monday that Israel would regret an air strike against Syria last week, without spelling out whether Iran or its ally planned a military response.

"They will regret this recent aggression," said Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden all met Alkhatib in Munich at the weekend and portrayed his willingness to talk with Syrian authorities as a major step towards resolving the war.

But Alkhatib is under pressure from other members of the exiled leadership in Cairo for saying he would be willing to talk to Assad, albeit on condition that Assad releases 160,000 prisoners and issues passports to the tens of thousands who have fled to neighboring countries without travel documents.

Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition's 12-member politburo, dismissed Alkhatib's meeting with Salehi.

"It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution," Bunni, a former political prisoner, told Reuters from Budapest.

Bunni said the Coalition was preparing a meeting of all its 70 members in Cairo to hear from Alkhatib about his diplomatic moves.

Alkhatib, whose family are custodians of the Umayyad Mosque in the historic centre of Damascus, is seen as a bulwark against the radical Islamist Salafist forces who wield heavy influence in the armed opposition.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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