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Syria

Al-Assad's office denies comments about 'not giving up'

Syrian President al-Assad's office has denied that he had said he would refuse to relinquish power. The quote came from a speech he gave earlier in the day in Damascus, as reported by Russia's Interfax news agency.

The office of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian state media denied reports from earlier on Sunday afternoon that he would not resign from power.

Russian news agency Interfax had originally reported the comments. It attributed them to a speech President al-Assad had given to Russian parliamentarians in Damascus.

"What the Russian news agency Interfax has published as comments made by President Assad are inaccurate," his office said.

There was no immediate comment available from Interfax.

Al-Assad's original comments

According to Interfax's report, al-Assad told Russian parliamentarians: "If we wanted to give up, we would have done so at the very beginning."

The comments referred to upcoming international peace talks in Switzerland during which the Assad regime will sit down with the Syrian opposition face-to-face for the first time since fighting broke out in March 2011.

The refusal to compromise on the opposition's key precondition for entering negotiations came only a day after the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) - the umbrella group of Syria's various opposition groups - voted at the last minute to attend the peace conference, dubbed Geneva II.

"This issue is not [up for] discussion," al-Assad reportedly said. "Only the Syrian people can decide who should take part in elections."

The long-awaited talks aimed at agreeing on a political solution to end the Syrian civil war are scheduled to begin on January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland.

SNC wants to 'strip' al-Assad of power

Prior to al-Assad's alleged comments on Sunday, SNC chairman Ahmad al-Jarba had already reasserted that the sole purpose of the group's attending Geneva II was to remove the Syrian president from power.

Main Syria opposition to attend talks

"The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution…and first and foremost stripping the butcher (al-Assad) of all his powers," al-Jarba said at the SNC's meeting in Istanbul on Saturday.

In the years since fighting began, attempts at bringing the warring sides to the negotiation tables have failed repeatedly, in part due to al-Assad's refusal to relinquish his post and the SNC's refusal to enter into talks without his resignation as a precondition.

Wednesday's Geneva II talks are to be the first face-to-face meeting between al-Assad's government and the opposition since March 2011, when fighting erupted in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, displaced millions within the country and driven over two million into neighboring countries.

kms/tj (AFP, Reuters)

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