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Syrian armed groups get most seats in committee set for talks with Assad

RIYADH (Reuters) - Armed rebel groups are to make up the largest single grouping in a joint Syrian opposition body that would oversee talks with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, according to a list of names the factions drew up in Saudi Arabia this week.

Assad said on Friday that the United States and Saudi Arabia wanted “terrorist groups” to join peace talks proposed by world powers, and that nobody in Syria would accept such talks, in an interview transcript published by state media.

The two-day Riyadh conference brought together more than 100 members of Syria’s fragmented political and armed opposition who agreed to work together to prepare for peace talks.

World powers have intensified their push to end the nearly five-year war, calling for talks to start by January even as fighting has escalated in a fighting involving the United States, Russia and European and Middle Eastern powers.

The Riyadh conference agreed to set up a 34-member secretariat to supervise peace talks, and that committee will also select the opposition’s negotiating team.

It includes 11 representatives of rebel fighting groups, according to the list of names proposed for the body seen by Reuters, making armed factions the biggest single grouping.

Behind them are nine members of the exiled political opposition, six from Syria’s internal, mainly Damascus-based opposition and eight independents.

Powerful Islamist insurgent group Ahrar al-Sham is represented, along with a number of Free Syrian Army groups that have received military support from states opposed to Assad, such as Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Ahrar’s founders included militants with links to al Qaeda, though the group espouses a Syrian nationalist platform.

The president of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Khaled al-Khoja, is also on the list, as well as former heads Ahmed Jarba and Moaz Alkhatib, who is included as an independent.

The SNC is the main Western-backed political opposition, although it has only had tenuous links with rebels on the ground and is seen as out of touch with the general population.

Major powers agreed in Vienna last month to revive diplomatic efforts to end the war including calling for elections within two years.

Assad’s fate was one of several questions left unresolved at the Vienna meeting which was attended by Russia, the United States, European and Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran, which back opposing sides in Syria.

Reporting by Angus McDowall Writing by John Davison in Beirut; Editing by Louise Ireland