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Russia invites head of Syrian opposition for talks

Friday, December 28, 2012 - 11:00pm

Russia said Friday it invited a Syrian opposition leader for talks despite its criticism of countries that recognize his group as the legitimate representative of the Middle East nation.

The move follows news that Moscow has called for the revival of a peace plan that is unpopular with the warring sides in the Syrian civil war.

Russia invited Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition.

The talks with him can be held in Moscow or another location, such as Geneva or Cairo, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told state-run RIA Novosti.

Al-Khatib said he does not plan to go to Moscow.

"We could meet in an Arab nation with a clear agenda," he said. "There appears to be total disregard in Russia's position to all massacres that happened to the Syrian people."

The Syrian National Coalition has been recognized by the United States and a number of Western and Arab nations as the legitimate representative of Syrians.

The invitation appears to signal a change in position for Russia, which criticized countries that recognized the group over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia and China have blocked attempts in the U.N. Security Council to take action to end the conflict and force al-Assad to step down.

But as the conflict rages on and the casualty count climbs to an estimated 40,000, Russia appears to be willing to look at other options. At least 101 people were killed across Syria on Friday, according to opposition activists.

News of the invitation came the same day that international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to arrive in Russia to meet the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, according to RIA Novosti.

On Thursday, Lavrov appeared to join Brahimi's call for the revival of a proposed peace plan that called for the creation of a transitional government in Damascus to hold power until an election.

The Geneva communique was put together at a conference in Switzerland in June that brought together representatives from world powers that had been at odds over the Syrian conflict.

The plan called for a cease-fire, a transitional government and the creation of a new constitution, though it did not outline whether al-Assad would have to step down. Russia and China joined France, Britain, the United States and Turkey in agreeing on the plan. Arab League nations also signed on to it.

But since the plan was cobbled together at Geneva conference, fighting has escalated and rebels have seized strongholds once held by al-Assad's forces.

"Given the developments in Syria, chances for such a solution based on the communique ... are dwindling, but there is still a chance and we should struggle for it," Lavrov said.

But neither the opposition nor al-Assad's government signaled a willingness then to sign on to it.

As late as Thursday, the Free Syrian Army said it would reject any plan that allows al-Assad or elements of his government to remain in power.

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