BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main Western-backed opposition group is considering an invitation for informal meetings involving Syrian government representatives in Moscow that would focus on establishing humanitarian corridors, opposition figures confirmed Thursday.
It was not immediately clear when the talks might take place, or whether they would include direct contact between representatives of President Bashar Assad's government and the Syrian National Coalition. But if the two sides were to sit down together for discussions on humanitarian issues, it could boost the prospects for a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia have been trying to convene in Geneva.
The coalition has demanded that Assad step down in any transitional Syrian government as a condition for its going to Geneva. Syrian officials say Assad will stay in his post at least until his terms ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday that representatives of the opposition, who met with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Geneva, "responded positively" to a Kremlin offer to host "informal contacts in Moscow for the entire spectrum of Syria's social and political forces."
Bogdanov said the talks could focus on humanitarian problems as well as some political issues. Kamal Labwani, a coalition member, said the opposition was considering whether to accept the Russian offer. But he said talks would be confined to experts from the coalition's humanitarian arm and government humanitarian organizations.
"The Russians called on the opposition to meet with the regime there, but then scaled it back to solving the humanitarian crisis," Labwani said. "They want to open a line of communication between the regime and the opposition through Russia."
Another Syrian opposition official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the proposed talks, said the opposition coalition has decided to send experts to Moscow for discussions limited to humanitarian corridors.
The coalition has long called on the international community to help secure aid to civilians, particularly in rebel-held areas that have been blockaded by government forces. The civil war in Syria has touched off a humanitarian catastrophe across the region. More than 2 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad, while the U.N. said this week that more than 9 million Syrians — out of the country's pre-war population of 23 million — are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday that it is "outrageous" that "the Syrian regime is denying aid workers access to towns that they are besieging, even as it is allowing international chemical weapons inspectors into the country."
"The fact of the chemical weapons implementation only underscores how much this is an issue of will for the regime, and lack of will," Power said. On Thursday, international inspectors said they have verified 22 of 23 declared chemical weapons sites after receiving video and photographic evidence showing that a facility near the contested northern city of Aleppo has been dismantled and abandoned.
The joint mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations, which is overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal, inspected 21 of the sites last month but had been unable to visit the remaining two because of fighting in the area.
The OPCW-U.N. statement said the Syrian government provided the joint mission with photographs and footage of the facility near Aleppo that confirmed the site has been dismantled and abandoned. It added that the building bore signs of "extensive battle damage." It was not clear when the damage occurred.
The images were shot with a tamperproof camera that inspectors had fitted with a GPS system so that the location of the camera could be tracked, the statement said. International inspectors have authenticated the photos and video.
The OPCW-U.N. mission has not disclosed the location of the last remaining site the inspectors need to verify.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Mike Corder in The Hague, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Ryan Lucas in Beirut contributed to this report.