Damascus meeting calls for peaceful change in Syria

BEIRUT Sun Sep 23, 2012 8:45am EDT

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Members of Syria's internal opposition held a rare meeting in Damascus on Sunday to call for a peaceful end to President Bashar al-Assad's rule, after months of fighting in which thousands have been killed.

The meeting went ahead with the blessing of authorities despite the arrest of several opposition figures in recent days and accusations from rebel forces that it gave a false signal that Assad is seeking a political solution to Syria's crisis.

Rajaa Nasser, one of the organizers of the Syria Salvation Conference, called for "an immediate halt to the shooting, a halt to the brutal and barbaric shelling, a truce and a pause for the fighters."

Such a truce could "open the way for a political process ... which guarantees a radical political change, an end to the current regime and a serious and genuine democracy," Nasser told the meeting organized by the internal opposition's main umbrella group, the National Coordination Body.

Activists say 27,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad erupted in March last year, most of them in the last few months as the uprising turned into a violent insurgency.

Western countries, reluctant to intervene militarily, have called for the president to step aside but their pressure for U.N. sanctions against Damascus has been blocked by Russia and China, whose envoys both attended Sunday's meeting.

"The main goal now is to put an immediate end to the violence in Syria, whether from the government side or the armed groups," Russia's ambassador Azamat Kulmukhametov said.

"The other goal is no less important, to convert the current confrontation ... into a peaceful political solution."

Assad has vowed to crush rebel fighters, who he portrays as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists, but says he accepts some opposition figures who call for a peaceful transition from a one-party state to democracy. His allies have pointed to the internal opposition as a sign Assad is serious about reform.

Members of the internal opposition, which includes outspoken critics of Assad who have spent years in jail, said Moscow and Beijing promised to exert influence to protect Sunday's meeting.

But eight members of the National Coordination Body were detained by Syrian security forces last week, including three who were seized outside Damascus airport after they returned from a trip to China, the group's spokesman said.

The internal opposition has been accused of being too passive by rebel fighters and members of the largely foreign-based Syrian National Council, a political group calling for the international community to arm rebel factions.

"This is not a real opposition in Syria. This opposition is just the other face of the same coin," a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army said.

"It is just a silly plot to mislead the international community to think there is a negotiation in place. They cannot be successful in finding an end to the civil war."

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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