Opposition "would talk to Assad in northern Syria"
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib said on Sunday he was willing to hold peace talks with President Bashar al-Assad's representatives in rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
The aim of the talks would be to find a way for Assad to leave power with the "minimum of bloodshed and destruction", Alkhatib said in a statement published on his Facebook page.
Alkhatib, a moderate cleric from Damascus, made his offer as opposition activists reported fighting had moved closer to central Damascus, following a rebel push into the east of the capital last week.
"If the regime is so concerned about sovereignty and does not want to venture out of Syrian territories, then there is a suitable solution, which is the liberated land in northern Syria," Alkhatib said.
"There is an important question. Will the regime agree to leave with the minimum of blood and destruction?"
Alkhatib last month offered to hold talks with Assad's ceremonial deputy Farouq al-Shara about an exit for Assad if the authorities started releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners jailed since the eruption of the 22-month uprising.
The United Nations said on Friday that it saw a glimmer of hope in Alkhatib's offer of talks.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said the offer was "the most promising thing we've heard on Syria recently".
Feltman said on Friday that international Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was exploring how to use Alkhatib's offer to further the stalled bid to broker peace.
Syria's uprising, which started as peaceful protests against four decades of autocratic rule by Assad and his late father, has turned into a violent sectarian conflict.
The war is pitting Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has dominated Syria since 1960s, against the Sunni majority that had led the protest movement.
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, said clashes broke out on Sunday in the al-Afif neighborhood of Damascus, which is adjacent to a presidential complex.
The organization said 77 people were killed in Syria on Sunday, including 16 people who it said had been executed by Assad's forces in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor. Such reports are impossible to verify as Syria severely restricts access for independent media.
The authorities have not responded directly to Alkhatib's initiative but Information Minister Amran al-Zubi on Friday repeated the government's line that the opposition was welcome to come to Damascus to discuss Syria's future in line with Assad's proposals for a national dialogue.
Alkhatib said that even centrist opposition figures who were willing to talk with Assad, such as Abelaziz al-Khayyer, a veteran Alawite human rights campaigner, have been jailed.
"The regime deals with the demands to release the political prisoners, especially the women, in a totally inhumane way," Alkhatib said. "Despite two years of savage killing, the regime is still trying to buy time."
(Editing by Stephen Powell)