Turkey pledges support for Syrian opposition

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 03, 2013 19:45 hrs

Turkey on Sunday pledged its continued support for the Syrian opposition, saying its leaders should not be pressured into talks with the regime as civil war rages.

Speaking at a security conference in Germany, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country supports efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria, but he understands the opposition's refusal to talk to President Bashar Assad after so many Syrian deaths in the fight to topple him.

"It is easy to say now, (the) opposition should accept to sit with the regime, after 60,000 people have been killed," Davutoglu said at the gathering of top diplomats and security officials in Munich.

"Assuming that tomorrow there is a new election in (Assad's) presence, who will guarantee the safety of the opposition leaders?" Davutoglu said.

Opposition leaders reject any talks with Damascus until Assad steps down. In a sharp departure from their resolve, the coalition's president, Moaz al-Khatib, said Wednesday he is willing to talk to the regime if that would help end bloodshed.

Like the United States and its Western allies, Turkey has repeatedly called on Assad to step down. Assad brushed the calls aside, outlining a peace proposal last month that would put him in charge of national reconciliation talks.

Russia, Assad's most important international ally, said the insistence on his ouster before political talks can begin was counterproductive. Another staunch supporter of Damascus, Iran, said Tehran would welcome the opposition leaders to talks.

"Iran has talked to the opposition," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Munich. "We are ready to be part of the solution," he insisted. "The sooner that we resolve the issue, the better it is."

Salehi talked in Germany on Saturday with al-Khatib, the opposition leader in a rare meeting between a senior Iranian official and an Assad opponent.

Al-Khatib's recent statements in which he said he is ready to talk to regime officials have angered his colleagues in his Syrian National Coalition, which he has been heading since November.

"Mouaz al-Khatib has committed a grave mistake. His duty is to represent the Coalition which categorically refuses to have any talks with any member of the regime before Bashar Assad steps down," said Kamal Labwani, a senior member of the coalition.

"He should respect the will of the people," Labwani told The Associated Press by telephone. "We expect him to apologize publically or to step down."

In the battlefield city of Aleppo in northern Syria, at least 16 people were killed when government troops bombed a building in a rebel-held neighborhood, activists said.

In other violence in the city, the official SANA news agency said a former parliament member, his wife and two daughters were killed near the Aleppo airport. The report said "terrorists," the term the Syrian government uses for rebels, fired at Ibrahim Azzouz's car in Sheik Said neighborhood, killing the family.

Rebels captured the strategic Sheik Said neighborhood southeast of Aleppo on Saturday. It was a significant blow to regime forces because the area includes the road the army has used to supply troops.

Troops loyal to Assad and rebels have been locked in a deadly stalemate in Aleppo, Syria's largest urban center and main commercial hub, since an opposition assault last summer. Seven months later, the rebels hold large parts of the city and its outskirts, including several army bases. But they have been unable to overcome the regime's far superior firepower.

The Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the regime, said government troops bombarded a building in in Aleppo's rebel-held neighborhood of Ansari Sunday and killed at least 16 people, including 10 children and youth.

The Aleppo Media Center, a network of anti-regime activists in the city, said 20 people were killed in the shelling of Ansari. An amateur video released by the group showed a building reduced to a pile of debris with dozens of people digging through the rubble in search for survivors.

"The family of the man over there is still under the rubble," a man could be heard saying, referring to a man standing in the area.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.

In Beirut, airport officials said Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad flew to Dubai. It was not clear whether if Mekdad will continue to another destination.

Mekdad and other Syrian officials have been using Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport in the past months after fighting intensified near the Damascus International Airport, and many regional and international airlines stopped flying to the Syrian capital.


Associated Press Writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Geir Moulson in Munich contributed to this report.

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