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US urges Syrian opposition to attend Rome talks

Feb. 24, 2013 11:22 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 26, 2013 11:27 A.M.)
By: Arshad Mohammed
LONDON (Reuters) -- A senior US official on Sunday urged the Syrian opposition to attend a planned international meeting in Rome this week, saying it was a chance for rebels to make their case for more support.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was dissension among the opposition about the utility of such meetings and some members have signaled they may not attend.

Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war in the last 22 months since fighting broke out between rebels trying to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and government forces and allied militias.

There appear to be growing tensions between the fighters on the ground and opposition members outside the country.

"The Syrian opposition leadership is under severe pressure now from its membership, from the Syrian people, to get more support from the international community and in that context there's quite a bit of internal discussion about the value of going to international conferences," the official told reporters traveling with US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"The point that we're trying to make ... is that they have an opportunity in Rome with the meeting that the Italians have offered to host to see the very countries that have been their greatest supporters," the official said.

The Syrian National Coalition said on Feb. 22 that it had turned down invitations to visit Washington and Moscow to protest what it described as international silence over the destruction of the historic city of Aleppo by government missile strikes.

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement condemning a Syrian army Scud missile attack that killed dozens of people on Friday in Aleppo, and invited the opposition for talks on finding a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

Chance to meet Kerry

Invitations from Washington and Moscow had been extended to opposition coalition leader Mouz Alkhatib after he met the Russian and U.S. foreign ministers in Munich earlier this month.

Alkhatib, a cleric from Damascus who has said he is morally obliged to try to seek an exit for Assad without more bloodshed, has been criticized by others in the SNC for acting alone.

Thursday's planned meeting, which Kerry is expected to attend along with European, Arab and Turkish officials, is a chance for the opposition "to make their case for where they are in terms of the support we are giving them, what more they think they need and why," the senior US official said.

The talks would also allow the opposition to meet Kerry, who took office on Feb. 1 and is making his first trip as secretary of state to Europe and the Middle East.

"They are obviously going to have to make (their own) decision but we very much hope that we'll have an opportunity to hear from them and to work with them going forward," the official said.

The official said US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who was withdrawn from the country more than a year ago because of the violence, was traveling to Cairo on Sunday night to meet the opposition while the top US diplomat for the Middle East, Beth Jones, would soon fly to Rome.

Kerry arrived in London on Sunday and is scheduled to travel to Berlin, Paris, Rome, Ankara, Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha before returning to Washington on March

Rocket attacks on an eastern districts of Aleppo, Syria's industrial and commercial hub, killed at least 29 people on Friday and trapped a family of 10 in the ruins of their home, opposition activists in the city said.
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