Russia 'ready for Syria opposition talks'

Sergei Lavrov refused to back calls for Mr Assad to step down

Russia has agreed to hold talks with Syria's opposition leaders, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

He said contact with the opposition was made through diplomats in Egypt, and he urged President Bashar al-Assad to also open talks with the rebels.

But Syria's opposition has rejected the offer and said Russia should apologise for backing Mr Assad.

Meanwhile dozens of Syrian army officers, including two Air Force commanders, have reportedly defected.

As many as 55 army officers are reported to have crossed the border into southern Turkey.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, Mr Lavrov confirmed that his government had contacted the Syrian National Coalition through the Russian Embassy in Egypt.

He said Russia had "expressed readiness to conduct a meeting" with opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

'Think of your people'

This did not mean Russia recognised the opposition, Mr Lavrov said.

Start Quote

Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib

If we represent the Syrian people why doesn't Russia make a clear call for Assad to step down?”

End Quote Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib Syrian opposition leader

Earlier this month, Russia criticised the US for joining other Western nations in formally recognising the Syrian opposition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

But Moscow also conceded for the first time that the Syrian government may lose the conflict.

"We are consistently working with the regime and all the opposition groups without exception," Mr Lavrov said.

"We are telling them the same thing: 'You have to think of your people, of your country. You should agree on a ceasefire. Sit down at the negotiating table.'"

Mr Lavrov said his government had held talks with Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Maqdad on Thursday, and had urged him to arrange a meeting with the opposition.

But Mr Lavrov said Russia still refused to back international calls for Mr Assad to step down.

"The international community must not incite either side toward violence or pose preliminary conditions," he said.

The Syrian opposition has rejected Mr Lavrov's offer for talks.

Lt Gen Abulaziz al-Shalal Lt Gen Abdulaziz al-Shala recently became one of the highest-ranking officials to defect from Syria

"We have clearly said we will not go to Moscow. We could meet in an Arab country if there was a clear agenda," Mr Khatib said in an interview with the al-Jazeera news channel.

"We also want an apology from Lavrov. If we do represent the Syrian people why doesn't Russia respond and issue a clear condemnation of the barbarity of the regime and make a clear call for Assad to step down? This is the basic condition for any negotiations."

As President Assad's principal, most powerful international supporter, Russia is a key player in finding a diplomatic solution, the BBC's James Reynolds says.

But holding talks and reaching as well as implementing an agreement on the ground are separate things, our correspondent adds.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov had earlier said Syrian forces were "losing more and more control and territory".

It was the first time a Russian official had said a defeat of Mr Assad's government could not be ruled out.

On Wednesday, the commander of Syria's military police, Lt Gen Abdulaziz al-Shalal, became one of the highest-ranking officers to join the uprising against Mr Assad.

Protests against the Syrian government began nearly two years ago.

Opposition groups say more than 44,000 people have been killed.

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