Assad regime calls for dialogue with Syrian opposition -UPDATED

For first time since 22-month conflict began, the regime of Syria says it is willing to negotiate, so long as talks are approached without preconditions and that arms are put down.

Assad regime calls for dialogue with Syrian opposition -UPDATED

World Bulletin/News Desk

The Syrian regime said late Friday that it was ready to hold dialogue with the Syrian opposition to end the 22-month conflict in the war-torn country, so long as the negotiations are approached without preconditions, Haaretz reported.

"The door is opened for any Syrian who wants to come to us and hold a dialogue. When we say dialogue we mean unconditional," Syria's Information Minister, Omran Zoabi, said in an interview with Syria's state television.

"The Syrian government continues outlining national dialogue, and invites all players from within Syria and abroad, including any coordinating committees, to engage in talks on Syrian soil. Anyone that requests to join can do so in safety, on condition that they give up their arms," he added.

According to the Haaretz, this is the first time an official of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime has expressed a commitment to engaging in conversations with the opposition, both within and outside the country, including the Syrian National Council umbrella group that unites the majority of opposition groups in Syria.

Zoabi's statement comes after the chief of the Syrian National Council, Moaz al-Khatib, said on January 30 that he is willing to negotiate with the Assad regime on the condition that the negotiations focus first and foremost on removing Assad from power.

He also called for the release of 160,000 detainees from Syrian jails and the renewal of passports for exiled citizens in Syrian embassies abroad before any dialogue starts, and demanded the regime release all women prisoners by that Sunday.

The United Nations sees a glimmer of hope for Syria in the opposition leader's offer to meet government representatives to discuss a political transition in an effort to end nearly two years of fighting, a senior U.N. official said on Friday.

U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said last week's offer by Moaz Alkhatib, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, was "the most promising thing we've heard on Syria recently."

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met with al-Khatib last week and extended him an official invitation to visit Moscow, said on Friday that Moscow is waiting for two delegations from Syria to arrive in Russia – one from the regime and one from the opposition. Speaking on an interview on the television station "Russia Today", Lavrov said Moscow is maintaining contact with both sides. However, he did not clarify whether the delegations are expected to meet one another or only Russian representatives.

In January, Assad offered a national dialogue and a constitutional referendum to end Syria's bloody crisis that has so far, according to UN estimates, killed more than 60,000 people.

"Dialogue in the preliminary stage must cover the widest spectrum of Syrians," Zoabi said, stressing that "Syria is heading toward a dialogue conference and there is no turning back from that."

Seven new ministers appointed

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has changed seven ministers in his cabinet, the official SANA news agency reported on Saturday, without saying why. None of the key portfolios was affected.

The agency said Assad had decided to split the ministry of labour and social affairs into two, and brought in a woman, Kinda Shmat, to head the latter. Hassan Hijazi becomes labour minister.

Sleiman Abbas takes the oil and mineral resources portfolio, and Ismail Ismail becomes finance minister. Hussein Farzat gets housing and urban development, Ahmad al-Qadri goes to agriculture and public works goes to Hussein Arnus.

Assad has announced several reshuffles since the uprising against his rule broke out nearly two years ago, the most recent in August last year.

Lebanon may need camps for flood of Syrian refugees

Meanwhile,  Lebanon should consider setting up transit centres to absorb the waves of refugees fleeing neighbouring Syria and may have to establish formal refugee camps if the influx continues, a United Nations refugee official said.

The tiny and fragile Mediterranean state already hosts 260,000 refugees - equivalent to 6.5 percent of its population - and has sought to absorb them in homes and communities, fearing large camps of Sunni Muslim Syrians could inflame sectarian tensions still smouldering from its own 1975-1990 civil war.

But the accelerating exodus from Syria's bloodshed means that the number of Syrians seeking help in Lebanon is growing by 3,000 a day, leaving authorities and the UNHCR refugee agency struggling to provide for them.

"We have this very tiny country ... a quarter of the size of Switzerland, with a population of 4 million people, taking in 260,000 refugees," UNHCR representative in Lebanon Ninette Kelley told Reuters late on Friday.

"I think what we need to start doing is to prepare for an eventuality whereby we may not be able to find enough shelter and accommodation given the current level of demand."

"We have advised the government that it may be a time to start having at least two transit sites," she said, where refugees could be offered temporary food and shelter before other accommodation is found. "As a start, that would be a good thing."

UNHCR has also made contingency plans to establish formal refugee camps if the mass influx continues, though that would have to be with Lebanese government permission, she said.

"We do plan for camps. We pre-position stocks, we make sure we have done assessments and that we are ready to go in that eventuality," she said in an interview at UNHCR headquarters in southern Beirut.

Reluctance to set up refugee camps stems in part from historic sensitivities over the waves of Palestinian refugees who fled from Israel, some of whom became central players in Lebanon's destructive civil war.

The issue also highlights the country's current political divide. Some of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Lebanese foes openly called for camps to be set up, hoping it would highlight the scale of his crackdown on the nearly two-year-old uprising in which an estimated 60,000 people have been killed.

The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, dominated by Assad allies including Hezbollah, preferred to support aid efforts to house the refugees in homes and schools in their own Sunni Muslim communities.

Aid workers say that the political concerns constrained their ability to help during the first year of the conflict, particularly in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where pockets of Christians, pro-Hezbollah Shi'ite Muslims and Sunni Muslim supporters of the armed Syrian rebels live close by.

They are still struggling. A report by the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said half the refugees in Lebanon were not receiving sufficient medical care and many more were living in inadequate winter shelter.

UNHCR has increased registration of new refugees to 40,000 a month, but even that may not keep pace with new arrivals and its capacity is stretched to the limit.

Kelley said that despite last month's U.N. conference in Kuwait, when $1.5 billion was pledged for Syrian humanitarian aid, U.N. operations inside Lebanon had so far only received 15 percent of their funding requirements.

"Our problem right now is we simply don't have enough funds to do 100 percent coverage of registered refugees and all the new arrivals," she said.

Last Mod: 09 Şubat 2013, 14:57
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