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Syria ready to talk to rebels

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By The Associated Press
Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 7:03 p.m.

Syria said on Monday it is prepared to hold talks with armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.

Meanwhile, the umbrella group for Syrian opposition parties said it had reversed a decision to boycott a conference in Rome being held to help drum up financial and political support for the opposition. Walid al-Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, said the move occurred after a phone call between the group's leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Al-Bunni told pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Arabiya the decision was made based on guarantees al-Khatib heard from Western diplomats that the conference would be different this time. The boycott had put the group at odds with its Western backers.

The Syrian talks offer, made by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, occurred hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire.

State-run news agency SANA said there were multiple casualties from the explosion, which it said was a suicide car bombing. Britain-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosions targeted a checkpoint, adding there were initial reports of at least five regime forces killed and several wounded.

The talks proposal marked the first time that a high-ranking regime official has stated publicly that Damascus would be willing to meet with the armed opposition. But al-Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to lay down their weapons before negotiations could begin — a sticking point in the past.

The regime's proposal is unlikely to lead to talks. The rebels battling the Syrian military have vowed to stop at nothing less than Assad's downfall.

But the timing of the proposal suggests the regime is warming to the idea of a settlement of the nearly 2-year-old conflict.

Opposition fighters have scored several tactical victories in recent weeks, capturing the nation's largest hydroelectric dam and overtaking air bases in the northeast. In Damascus, they have advanced from their strongholds in the suburbs into neighborhoods in the northeast and southern rim of the capital, while peppering the center of the city with mortar rounds for days.

Monday night's explosion struck about 800 yards from Abbasid Square, a landmark plaza in central Damascus. It was followed by several other smaller blasts thought to be mortar shells landing in various districts of the capital. The blasts and subsequent gunfire caused panic among residents who hid in their apartments.

While momentum appears to be shifting in the rebels' direction, the regime's grip on Damascus remains firm,.

Still, the offer to negotiate with the armed opposition reflects the regime's realization that in the long run, its chances of keeping its grip on power are slim.

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