As Fighting Rages

Assad Regime Calls for Dialogue With Syrian Opposition, for First Time Since Conflict Began

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

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.

"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.

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.

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."

Russia and Iran, both staunch allies of Assad's regime, have called on the regime and the opposition to start dialogue as soon as possible to stop the bloodbath in the country.

At least 110 dead on Friday

The new development came as violence continued to rage across Syria especially in areas at the outskirts of the Syrian capital, and the northern provinces, where government forces were said to have killed scores of rebel fighters in the past 24 hours.

Syrian state news agency SANA said government troops Friday killed and injured members of "an armed terrorist group" on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

The army also targeted insurgents from Al-Nusra Front near the central Homs province, added SANA.

Activists in Damascus said at least 110 people had been killed Friday in the city, where fighting has been raging between government troops and rebels for the past three days.

Troops loyal to Assad have recently stepped up a campaign to drive out rebels from suburban Damascus, where the insurgents are believed to have strongholds.

An activist group on Friday condemned what it called the "world silence" about mass killings of civilians during the country's nearly two-year conflict.

"The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is calling on all humanitarian organizations, the United Nations and world powers to stop their silence about massacres being committed in Syria against civilians," the head of the Britain-based organization, Rami Abdel- Rahman, told DPA.

The appeal comes after the observatory reported that the death toll from an explosion near a military factory in Homs in central Syria on Wednesday reached 54. All the dead were civilians.

"The victims were not military. They were civilians working in the factory to earn their living," he added.

The observatory had earlier said that 11 women were killed in the attack, the latest in a series of deadly bombings in the country.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. However, it has been speculated that the attack is the work of the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group labeled by the United States as a terrorist organization, who is known to have carried out several suicide bombings against government institutions in recent months.

Amid the surge in violence, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that severely damaged water supply and sewage treatment systems are raising the risk of diseases spreading in Syria's conflict-hit areas.

"Many people in these areas have only 25 liters of water per day, compared with 75 liters two years ago," UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said.

UNICEF reported that conditions are especially dire for Syrian refugees living in collective shelters.

"Living conditions are often unsanitary due to the lack of toilets, showers, hygiene items such as soap, and rationed access to water - often less than 10 liters per person per day," it said.

In Geneva, the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Adrian Edwards, said that around 5,000 people were leaving Syria on a daily basis.

"We now have 787,000 refugees who are registered or are pending registration," he added.