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Syrian Opposition Chief Willing to Talk to VP Sharaa

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, right (file photo)Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, right (file photo)
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Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, right (file photo)
Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, right (file photo)
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Exiled Syrian opposition leader Mouaz al-Khatib has expanded on an offer to hold peace talks with the Syrian government, saying he is willing to sit down with the deputy of President Bashar al-Assad.

In interviews with Arab television networks on Monday, al-Khatib said he is extending a hand to Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa to negotiate what he called a "peaceful departure of the (Assad) regime."

The Syrian National Coalition leader first made the offer last week, saying it was conditional on the government freeing tens of thousands of prisoners and providing passports to Syrians exiled by a nearly two-year-long rebellion against Assad's authoritarian rule. The proposal angered some members of the opposition coalition, which previously had demanded that Assad leave power before negotiations could begin.

In his latest interviews, al-Khatib said he wants a dialogue with the Assad government because he has concluded that only Syrians can find a solution to the country's civil war. The international community has been divided on how to respond to the conflict, with Western powers and their Arab allies demanding Assad quit, while allies of the Syrian president such as Iran and Russia insist that no foreign power should dictate Syria's future.

Al-Khatib said his offer of talks puts the ball in the government's court. There was no immediate response from Assad, who has proposed his own national reconciliation process that offers elections and a new constitution but keeps himself in power.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that if the Assad government has any interest in peace, it should "sit down and talk now" with the opposition coalition.

In the latest fighting on Monday, rights activists said government forces bombarded rebel-held areas around Damascus including Douma with air strikes and artillery.

U.N. humanitarian agency UNICEF said it has started an operation to deliver water-treatment chemicals to Syria to provide safe water supplies to 10 million people, almost half the country's population. It said the first four trucks carrying 80 tons of chlorine crossed from Jordan into Syria on Sunday, bound for the regions of Homs, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib.

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