Syria opposition in Damascus urges Assad's overthrow

Syrian rebels crouch in Aleppo, 18 September The Syrian uprising has now been going on for 18 months

Syrian opposition figures have called for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad at a rare meeting of anti-government groups in Damascus.

The Syrian opposition is deeply divided between the majority in exile and those still based inside the country.

Rebels fighting President Assad often dismiss the "internal opposition" as too lenient on the Syrian leader.

Analysts say the strong statements from the 16 parties may be aimed at gaining credibility.

The parties have formed the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB).

The NCB agrees with the armed rebels and the Syrian National Council - made up largely of Syrian exiles - on the need to topple Mr Assad.

However, it opposes the violent uprising, as well as any foreign military intervention, and is more inclined to negotiate a peaceful settlement to 18-month-old crisis.

'Peaceful struggle'

President Assad's regime normally tightly restricts criticism in areas it controls, but the NCB's Rajaa al-Nasser said the Damascus authorities had permitted all Syrian political figures to attend the conference "without restrictions."

A statement said the participants in the conference had agreed on a number of principles, mainly "overthrowing the regime with all its symbols" while emphasising the need for "peaceful struggle to achieve the goals of the revolution".

The statement called for an immediate ceasefire accompanied by the withdrawal of the Syrian army from towns and cities, and the release of all political detainees and kidnapped people.

This would be followed by the start of negotiations between the opposition and representatives of the Syrian government on a peaceful transition of power, it said.

NCB head Hassan Abdul-Azim told the Associated Press news agency: "It's our right to meet here in the capital to express our views without being subject to dictates and pressures or to be forced to make concessions."

Activists say 27,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Mr Assad began in March last year.

Western nations have called for the president to step aside, but their attempts to impose UN sanctions against Damascus have been blocked by Russia and China.

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