BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's main Western-backed opposition group has refused to participate in talks in Moscow with Syrian government organizations on resolving the country's humanitarian crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry and opposition figures said Friday.
Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Syrian National Coalition is "blocking and refusing to participate" in the talks. Russian officials had hoped the talks would bolster prospects for a proposed peace conference the U.S. and Russia are trying to convene in Geneva.
The coalition has demanded guarantees, including that President Bashar Assad would step down in any transitional Syrian government, as a condition for going to Geneva. Damascus has said Assad will stay in his post at least until his terms ends in 2014 and that he may run for re-election.
Friday's rejection came after Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Thursday that the opposition had "responded positively" to a proposal for such talks. Kamal Labwani, a member of the coalition, told The Associated Press on Friday that the group refused to go to Moscow because "Russia is not a fair mediator and is part of the conflict." He was referring to Moscow's support to the Syrian government since the crisis began in March 2011.
"Russia can become a fair mediator when it orders Assad to leave Syria," Labwani said by telephone from Paris. "When (Russia) wants to support the criminal, it will lose." The coalition long has called on the international community to help secure aid to civilians, particularly in rebel-held areas blockaded by government forces.
The Russian foreign ministry spokesman said the Moscow initiative had "received an active and positive response among a number of opposition group leaders." "Unfortunately, the Syrian National Opposition and individual leaders who consider it a counterproductive ploy are blocking it and refusing to participate," he said.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday that the timeline for having a peace conference in Geneva is failing "primarily because representatives of the opposition aren't ready to take part without preconditions."
"This intransigence and these demands are being asserted by the National Coalition, which claims to be the only representative of the Syrian people, but which doesn't represent even a majority of the opposition groups that are opposing Assad's regime," Lavrov told reporters.
Even though focusing only on the Syrian humanitarian crisis alone, the proposed Moscow talks would have represented a diplomatic breakthrough, with opposition and representatives of governmental groups sitting down at the same table.
Meanwhile, the government of Denmark said Friday that Copenhagen is willing to help take chemical weapons out of Syria by sea and provide bodyguards for a key U.N. official there. The United Nations unofficially asked whether Denmark could contribute ships to transport the weapons from Syria for destruction, Defense Minister Nikolai Wammen said. He said it is too early to put a number of how many Danish ships and personnel would be involved.
Foreign Aid Minister Christian Friis Bach said there are no plans for the weapons to be destroyed in Denmark. In Syria, activists said Syrian troops launched a major offensive Friday to recapture the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo.
The Aleppo Media Center and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops attacked a base protecting the airport, closed for almost a year. Rebels captured the base in February. The government advance comes a week after government troops captured the strategic town of Safira, southeast of the Aleppo airport, after weeks of fighting.
State-run news agency SANA reported that gunmen killed eight people wounded several harvesting olives in Khnaifes village in the central province of Hama. SANA said that some 40 "terrorists" attacked the harvesters and kidnapped two women. State media refers to rebels as terrorists.
Syria's civil war has touched off a humanitarian catastrophe across the region. More than 2 million Syrians have sought refuge abroad. The United Nations 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. More than 120,000 people have been killed, according to the Observatory, which closely monitors the fighting in Syria. The U.N. said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting and has not updated that figure since.
Mills reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.