Opposition chief offers dialogue
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- The leader of Syria's main opposition group called Monday on President Bashar Assad to respond to his overture for a dialogue to save the country from complete destruction.
Mouaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, said he is extending his hand "to facilitate the peaceful departure" of the regime and called on Assad to begin releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners as a precondition.
Al-Khatib said last week he is willing to hold talks with the regime in Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey if that would help end the bloodshed. His offer marked a departure from the mainstream opposition's narrative insisting that Assad step down before any talks and has angered some of his colleagues who accused him of acting unilaterally.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began almost two years ago. The revolt, which began with largely peaceful protests, has turned into civil war now locked in a deadly stalemate with sectarian overtones.
Al-Khatib's offer reflects the realization among some opposition leaders that a victory is unlikely to be achieved on the ground as well as disillusionment with an international community that has largely failed to stem the bloodshed and has balked at military intervention to help topple Assad.
Al-Khatib, a 52-year-old preacher turned activist, renewed his offer Monday in an interview with Qatari-based Al-Jazeera television and said he was placing the ball in Assad's court.
"We say to the Syrian leadership, let us search for an exit for the crisis before Syria gets destroyed even more," he said.
"The regime has to take a clear stance and we will extend our hand for the sake of our people and in order to facilitate the peaceful departure of the regime," he added.
Al-Khatib met separately with Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials on the sidelines of a conference on security in Munich over the weekend.
There has been no comment from Syrian officials on al-Khatib's initiative last week or his latest comments.
A senior Iranian official visiting Damascus appeared to voice support for al-Khatib's call for dialogue, without naming him.
"We welcome any initiative that leads to dialogue," said Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's National Security Council. He said the talks should be held in Damascus.
Jalili also commented on an airstrike on Syria last week, saying Israel will regret conducting it. He urged the entire Muslim world to be ready to defend the Syrian people.
"Just as it regretted its aggressions after the 33-day, 22-day and eight-day wars, today the Zionist entity will regret the aggression it launched against Syria," Jalili told a news conference in Damascus. He was referring to past wars between Israel and Hezbollah or the Palestinian Hamas rulers of Gaza.
"The Islamic world will not allow aggression against Syria," he said. "Syria stands on the front line of the Islamic world against the Zionist regime. ... The Islamic world must react appropriately to the Israeli aggression."
Iran is Syria's closest regional ally and Jalili used his 3-day visit to pledge Tehran's continued support for the President Bashar Assad's regime
Israel has all but confirmed it was behind the airstrike near Damascus last week. U.S. officials said the Israelis struck a military research center and a convoy next to it carrying anti-aircraft weapons destined for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
Syria said has vowed to retaliate.
As Jalili was speaking in Damascus, activists said Syrian warplanes hit several opposition strongholds in the city's outskirts, from where rebels have been threatening the capital, the seat of Assad's power.
The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets carried out airstrikes on the neighborhood of Kfarbatna, Harasta and Zamalka, south of Damascus. Regime troops shelled other towns and villages around the capital with artillery as soldiers and rebels fought in street clashes, the Observatory said. The group relies on reports from anti-regime activists on the ground.
There were no immediate reports on casualties from airstrikes and shelling, but the Observatory said at least five rebels were killed in clashes with troops.
Elsewhere in Syria, army troops also battled rebels in oil-rich Deir el-Zour in the east, along Syria's border with Iraq. In the north fighting was concentrated around the battlefield city of Aleppo, particularly along the road that links the city with its airport.
The Observatory said there was heavy fighting near Aleppo international airport as regime troops tried to dislodge rebels from Sheik Said area, southeast of the city that is Syria's largest urban center and its main commercial hub.
Rebels captured the strategic Sheik Said neighborhood on Saturday. It was a significant blow to regime forces that have been battling rebels for control of Aleppo since last summer. The army used the road to supply troops.
Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime fighter jets carried out several airstrikes on Sheik Said on Monday in an effort to reverse rebels' advance in Aleppo. There were no reports of casualties from the bombing.
Rebels hold large parts of the city and its outskirts, including several army bases, but they have been unable to capture Aleppo in seven months of a deadly stalemate due to regime's far superior firepower.
Also Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said two Russians and an Italian kidnapped by Syrian rebels have been freed.
Viktor Gorelov and Abdessattar Hassun are in the Russian Embassy in Damascus and in good health, the ministry said, adding that Italian Mario Belluomo, will be handed over to Italian envoys by Syria's Foreign Ministry. The three were abducted together on Dec. 12.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.
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