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Syria ready to talk to rebels, foreign minister says

BEIRUT — The Syrian government is prepared to engage in talks with opposition representatives, including armed rebels, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Monday in Moscow.

“We are ready for dialogue with anyone who wants dialogue, including those who are fighting with arms in their hands, because we are confident that reforms cannot be carried out through bloodshed, but through dialogue,” Moallem said before meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s RT network reported.

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The comments appeared to be the strongest signal to date that Syrian authorities were willing to sit down with representatives of the armed opposition fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

Assad had previously indicated that his government would not talk to “terrorists,” as he and his representatives refer to the rebels and their backers.

It was not clear if Syria would insist that the insurgents put down their weapons before any talks are held.

Russia and the Arab League are trying to broker talks in a bid to help end the Syrian conflict, which has cost almost 70,000 lives, according to a United Nations estimate.

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Whether talks will take place remains a question mark as the Syrian conflict nears its two-year anniversary. No negotiations are scheduled. Neither side has appointed a negotiating team or agreed on a site for talks.

The major exile opposition group, known as the Syrian National Coalition, has insisted that any talks must result in the ouster of Assad and his security team. Damascus has rejected such preconditions.

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In a speech last month, Assad called for national dialogue, but he has insisted that his government remain in charge as any negotiations unfold. The opposition calls his continued presence unacceptable.

Last week, the opposition umbrella group announced what was in effect a boycott of upcoming international meetings on Syria, including a session scheduled later this week in Rome of the so-called Friends of Syria group, which includes the United States and dozens of allied nations demanding Assad’s departure. Washington and other nations in the group have helped bankroll the opposition bloc.

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The dissident coalition said the boycott was in protest of the world’s “shameful’ silence about the ongoing carnage in Syria.

However, on Monday it apparently made an about-face, saying it had reversed its earlier decision and would attend the Rome meeting after all, news agencies reported.

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The apparent turnaround came after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the coalition to reconsider its boycott of the meeting, where Kerry had planned to meet with the dissident leaders.

The new secretary, speaking Monday in London, also questioned the Syrian government’s commitment to dialogue after recent reports of Scud missile attacks on the northern city of Aleppo that have killed scores of people.

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