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Syria

Syria regime agrees 'in principle' to attend Geneva peace talks

Syria's foreign minister has said his government has agreed to attend multilateral peace talks in Geneva "in principle." Walid Muallem said the talks present a "good opportunity" for a political solution to the conflict.

Muallem announced during a press conference while visiting Iraq's capital Baghdad that the Syrian regime had agreed "in principle to participate in the international conference." The US and Russia hope to convene it in Geneva next month.

"Since the eruption of the crisis in Syria, we have believed that dialogue among the Syrian people is the solution," Muallem said, flanked by his Iraqi his counterpart Hoshyar Zebari and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"We believe, in all good faith, that the international conference represents a good opportunity for a political solution to the crisis in Syria," he added.

Russia and the United States jointly proposed the talks last month in an effort to bring Syria's 26-month conflict to an end. No official date has yet been set, however, due to what Moscow has described as a lack of unity among Syrian opposition groups.

Senior officials in the main opposition Syrian National Coalition have said they are willing to attend talks but have said they are seeking guarantees that their main demand - an agreement for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave office - will be met.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday to work on a plan to bring all parties to the negotiating table.

Syrian troops strengthen hold on Qusair

The latest focus of fighting has been in the strategic town of Qusair in western Syria where government troops backed by militants from the Shiite Hezbollah movement are seeking to evict rebel forces.

Saturday opposition activists reported the most intense fighting in the area since government forces began their assault one week ago. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 22 people in opposition-held areas had been killed by Saturday afternoon, mostly rebels.

Syrian state media said troops had gradually been gaining ground during the week, and continued to do so.

The town is of strategic significance to the government because it lies on a land corridor that links Damascus with government-loyalist towns on the Syrian coast. For the rebels, the town is important in protecting their supply lines coming from Lebanon, only 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

Al-Assad's forces are believed to have seized some two-thirds of the town, largely surrounding the rebels. The fighting on Saturday saw the government troops enter Dabaa airport - one of their key objectives.

According to United Nations estimates more than 80,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011.

ccp/ipj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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