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Syria talks offer stands despite Assad silence

Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib speaks to the media after meeting with Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi in Cairo February 11,
Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib speaks to the media after meeting with Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi in Cairo February 11,

By Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Syria's main opposition leader signaled on Monday that his offer of talks with the government to end the country's 22-month-old civil war was still open, a day after a deadline he had set passed without a response.

Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib, speaking after talks with the head of the Arab League in Cairo, said President Bashar al-Assad's government had not responded by Sunday to his initiative to discuss a transition of power.

"The regime has not given a clear answer so far, clearly, frankly, that it accepts leaving to spare destruction and blood," he told reporters in Cairo.

"No meetings have been arranged, and no formal contact with any party has happened so far."

Pressed to say whether his offer was still open despite the timeline he had set, Alkhatib said: "We are still waiting for the government response and then we are going to study that."

The SNC is an umbrella group of most of Syria's opposition political forces.

International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi discussed the initiative with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby on Sunday as a deadline set by Alkhatib for talks with the government on ending the conflict passed with no sign of movement.

The opposition leader said last week that Assad's government must release thousands of women prisoners by Sunday, February 10, or he would consider his offer to have been rejected.

Alkhatib later said on his Facebook page he was prepared to hold talks with representatives of Assad in areas of northern Syria under rebel control, without mentioning a deadline.

DAMASCUS INVITATION

While there has been no direct response from the government, Syria's Information Minister Amra al-Zubi said on Friday the opposition was welcome to come to Damascus to discuss Syria's future in line with Assad's proposals for a national dialogue, repeating a standard line.

"So far we got nothing but those ridiculous comments from the information minister, however we are still willing to study any real initiative that could lead to the end of oppression and violence in Syria," coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni said.

Leaders of Islamic nations urged Syria at a summit last week in Cairo to enter into a "serious dialogue" with the opposition alliance on a political transition to end the conflict.

The presidents of Egypt, Turkey and Iran, influential outside players on opposite sides of the conflict, conferred on a framework for peace negotiations. But there has been no sign that Assad is interested in a negotiated exit.

Alkhatib offered last week to open talks with Assad's ceremonial vice-president, Farouq al-Shara, if the government released women prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

However, with intense fighting continuing in an around Damascus, it is also not clear how much influence Alkhatib and the SNC have over fighters on the ground.

Responding to those concerns, the opposition leader played down divisions among the opposition, saying it was part of a healthy democracy among the government's opponents.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Alexander Dziadosz; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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