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'Geneva II' Syria peace talks set for Dec. 12

Nov. 14, 2013 8:59 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 16, 2013 10:56 A.M.)
DAMASCUS (AFP) -- A long-delayed peace conference on Syria's bloody conflict will be held on Dec. 12, a Syrian newspaper said Thursday, as mortar shells and two blasts killed three in Damascus.

The date was reported as the head of Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah, which backs Syria's President Bashar Assad, said his forces would continue to fight alongside the regime in Syria.

Syrian daily al-Watan, citing diplomats in Paris, said US Secretary of State John Kerry had told his French counterpart Laurent Fabius that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would announce the date on Nov. 25.

The newspaper said a Syrian government source declined to confirm the report, while an adviser to the president of the opposition National Coalition also said a date for talks had not been finalized.

"The organizers of Geneva II want the conference to be held before the end of the year," Munzer Aqbiq told AFP.

The international community has been trying for months to convene a peace conference dubbed "Geneva II," but proposed dates have come and gone with no progress.

The regime has said it is willing to attend, but that President Bashar Assad's departure from office will not be on the table.

The opposition has been divided over going to any such conference, but said this week it would attend under certain conditions, including Assad's departure and exclusion from the transition process.

Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi derided the opposition's conditions.

"Those who dream they're going to Geneva to be given the keys to Damascus are stupid people without any political weight who understand nothing about politics and live in cloud cuckoo land," Zohbi told the official SANA news agency.

"Those who announced their readiness to attend just a few days ago have done so at the behest of their masters," he said in allusion to Western governments, which back the rebels but have also pressed them hard to attend peace talks.

Assad discussed the talks in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, the Kremlin said.

Russia's president "positively assessed" the readiness of Assad's government to attend the talks, the Kremlin said.

Shortly afterwards, a Syrian official said a high-level Damascus team would travel to Moscow on Monday to meet Russian officials to "finalize the details of the peace conference due to be held in Geneva."

The delegation would include presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad and Ahmad Arnous, the foreign ministry's senior official on European affairs.

Renewed discussion of the peace conference comes despite ongoing violence, with at least three people killed and 22 wounded by mortar fire and two blasts in Damascus.

State news agency SANA reported the deaths, citing police who blamed "terrorists," the regime term for opposition forces.

The attacks took place on Mardam Bek Street and in the Kalassa district, not far from the historic Ummayad mosque and the bustling Hamidiyeh market.

Rebels in neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus regularly target the city center with rocket and mortar fire.

Such attacks have caused increasing numbers of casualties, with four children and a man killed on Monday when a shell hit a school bus in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood.

In neighboring Lebanon, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah vowed to keep his men fighting alongside Assad's regime.

Hezbollah involvement in the conflict has drawn international criticism and raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon, where many Sunnis back the Syrian uprising.

"We have said on several occasions that the presence of our soldiers on Syrian soil is to defend ... Syria, which supports the resistance" against Israel, Nasrallah said in a rare public speech before supporters marking the Shiite Muslim Ashura commemoration.

"So long as that reason exists, our presence there is justified."
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