Syria's vice president has opened a national dialogue on political reforms with a call for a transition to democracy in response to months of opposition protests against the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said Sunday he hopes the two-day conference in Damascus will help to launch what he called Syria's transition to a "pluralistic democratic state in which all citizens enjoy equality."
Assad proposed the dialogue last month as a gesture to the opposition, which has been holding regular mass protests since March to demand an end to his family's four-decade rule of the country.
Some opposition activists and intellectuals joined Sunday's talks, but most prominent Syrian dissidents boycotted the conference to protest Assad's deadly crackdown on the opposition uprising.
Al-Sharaa acknowledged that the government would not have launched a high-level, nationally-televised dialogue on reforms without the bloodshed by civilians and security forces, as he put it.
Rights groups say Syrian security forces have killed at least 1,600 civilians in the crackdown, while the government blames the violence on terrorists and Islamists who it says have killed hundreds of security personnel.
Syria also is accusing the American and French ambassadors in Damascus of undermining the country's stability. The Syrian foreign ministry said Sunday it had summoned the two envoys to protest their visits to the opposition stronghold of Hama last Thursday and Friday. It called the visits "flagrant interference" in Syria's internal affairs.
The U.S. and French diplomats traveled to Hama to show solidarity with its residents who have come under attack from government forces while staging some of the largest recent protests against Assad's rule.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP.