Syria peace envoy in Moscow, Russia pressures Assad

The UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was to hold talks in Moscow Saturday to find a way out of the Syria conflict after Russia upped the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to open talks with the rebels.

Brahimi was due to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amid signs that Russia ?- the only world power with close ties to the Damascus regime ?- was playing a more active role in finding an end to the bloody crisis that has claimed over 45,000 lives.

His trip came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Moscow on the Syria conflict that this week also saw a rare visit by the Syrian deputy foreign minister as well as Egypt?s top diplomat.

Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that the talks with Brahimi were aimed "at ending the violence and launching a national dialogue in the country between the authorities and the opposition."

Brahimi was due to meet Lavrov at 0700 GMT with the two men later to hold a joint news conference on the results of their meeting.

In a clear shift from its tone in most of the 21-month conflict, Russia has in recent weeks started to countenance the possibility that Assad may not be able to stay in power, prompting hope Moscow will push him to accept a negotiated solution.

In contrast to Russia's past suspicion of the rebels battling the Assad regime, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Thursday Russia had made an offer of talks to the opposition Syria National Coalition.

However the head of the group ?- formed in November with the encouragement of the West ?- showed little enthusiasm for the idea, saying such talks could not take place in Moscow and demanding that Russia apologise for its past policy.

"We have said frankly that we will not go to Moscow," Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib told Al-Jazeera television.

Khatib said Russia should apologise for "interfering" in Syrian affairs, condemn "massacres" committed by the regime and issue a "clear call for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad."

If these conditions were met, talks could be held with the Russians "but only in an Arab country and if there is a clear agenda", he said.

Lavrov had said on Thursday that Moscow had urged the Assad regime to put all options on the table and engage with the opposition in talks.

"We actively encouraged... the Syrian leadership to maximally put into action its declared readiness for dialogue with the opposition," Lavrov told reporters when asked about his meeting on Thursday with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad.

But Russia has steadfastly refused to explicitly call on Assad to step down, even though President Vladimir Putin acknowledged this month there was "need for a change" after the family dynasty?s 40 years in power.

The fast-paced diplomacy came as government air raids on the town of Al-Safira, south of second city Aleppo, killed 15 civilians, eight of them children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In Deir Ezzor province in the east, rebel fighters overran the Tanak oilfield east of the provincial capital, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Video footage posted on the Internet by activists showed the bloodied corpses of six soldiers they said were killed in the fighting. Its authenticity could not be verified.

The Observatory said three rebel fighters were also killed.

The rebels control a large swathe of territory in the east stretching from close to Deir Ezzor city to the Iraqi border.

Nationwide, at least 153 people were killed in violence on Friday, 47 of them civilians, the Observatory said.

With concerns intensifying about the humanitarian situation, UN chief Ban Ki-moon will chair an international conference on January 30 in Kuwait to raise money for Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict, the United Nations said.

The UN is calling for $1.5 billion (750 million euros) to help through June nearly one million Syrian refugees and four million other Syrians affected by the conflict but who remain the country.

The UN refugees office registered 500,000 Syrian refugees and expects nearly a million more by June 2013 -- figures that represent 4.4 percent of the pre-crisis population.

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