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Russia says Syrian regime agrees to peace talks

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government has agreed to attend a conference proposed by Russia and the United States on ending the country's civil war, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Friday, the first sign that President Bashar Assad's regime would be willing to take part in the talks with the opposition.

Assad's government has not issued a definitive statement of its own on the proposed talks, but a Syrian legislator in Damascus also said the government intends to attend.

Russia and the U.S. joined efforts to convene an international conference to bring representatives of Assad's regime and the opposition to the negotiating table, expected to be held in Geneva next month. The aim of the talks would be to establish the outlines of a transitional government as a way to end the civil war, now in its third year.

More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011.

The diplomatic push comes as the rebels have suffered a string of setbacks and found themselves forced to call in reinforcements to fight off a weeklong regime offensive aimed at recapturing the key western Syrian town of Qusair.

The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has not yet said whether it will attend the Geneva conference and is currently discussing its position at a gathering in the Turkish city of Istanbul. But members have said they want guarantees that Assad's departure is foremost on the agenda of any talks.

The U.S.-Russia plan, similar to the one set out last year in Geneva, calls for talks on a transitional government and an open-ended cease-fire. Washington, along with key European and Arab supporters of Syria's opposition, said Wednesday that Assad must relinquish power at the start of a transition period. Russia, however, has not committed to Assad's departure and the Syrian leader has said he will not step down before his term ends next year.

Moscow's announcement came after days of talks there between Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and Russian officials.

"We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from the Syrian government in Damascus to participate in the international conference, in the interest of Syrians themselves, to find a political solution," Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in televised remarks.

But he said it is impossible to set the date for the conference at this point because there is "no clarity about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have."

Lukashevich also said Moscow "was not encouraged" by the results of recent meetings of members of the Syrian National Coalition.

U.S. officials announced later Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week in Paris to discuss the Syria peace talks, adding that Kerry will extend a seven-day trip through the Middle East and Africa by one day to dine Monday with Lavrov.

In the Syrian capital, legislator Sharif Shehadeh confirmed the government intends to attend, though no official statement has been issued yet. "The expectations and the opinion within the Syrian leadership is that it will most definitely attend the conference," Shehadeh told The Associated Press.

He said neither the opposition nor the regime should set preconditions for the talks because that would lead to "failure and this is something Russia is making clear to the opposition."

"The success of the conference lies with the opposition, not the government," he said.

At the Syrian National Coalition's three-day gathering in Istanbul that began Thursday, an opposition figure expressed doubts over Moscow's announcement, questioning why the regime has said nothing about it.

"We are very supportive of the (U.S.-Russian) initiative. Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith. We would like to hear enough (from Damascus) to know that they are serious about these negotiations," Louay Safi said.

Kerry has acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. "Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is," he said Thursday during a visit to Israel.

Intense fighting, meanwhile, continued in Qusair, near the border with Lebanon, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Government forces have been trying to recapture the town since Sunday. State-run news agency SANA said troops killed a "large number" of rebels in the latest clashes.

The Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has several reporters embedded with Syrian troops in Qusair, said government forces were advancing inside the nearby town of Hamdiyeh in an attempt to cut the rebels' last supply line.

Syrian state media also reported that rebels fired mortar shells at the central prison in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, killing and wounding several inmates.

The pro-opposition Aleppo Media Center said rebels and government troops were clashing at the prison, where a large fire had broken out. State-TV reported later Friday that troops repelled the attack on the jail and killed several gunmen.

State-run news agency SANA said the army destroyed two trucks loaded with explosives near the central prison and killed scores of "terrorists."

A week earlier, Assad's forces repelled a rebel raid on the prison aiming to free hundreds of political prisoners.

In other violence, a suicide bomber detonated his car packed with explosives on the outskirts of the northern city of Idlib, killing five people and wounding 10, SANA reported. It did not identify the target of the attack.

In neighboring Lebanon, Lebanese supporters and opponents of Assad fought overnight in the port city of Tripoli, a port city that has seen some of the worst fighting in years provoked by the bloodshed in Syria. Security officials said the death toll since Sunday reached 25, including three soldiers.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said 200 people were wounded in the fighting. The city was quiet during the day Friday apart from sporadic shooting.

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Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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