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Syrian opposition figures meet in Damascus

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian opposition figures called Sunday for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad at a rare meeting of anti-regime groups held in the government-controlled capital Damascus, a possible attempt by the gathering to position itself as an alternative to the armed rebellion.

Rebels fighting Assad typically dismiss the so-called "internal opposition" as too lenient on the Syrian dictator, so the strong statements from the 16 parties in the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria may be aimed at gaining credibility among Syrians who despise the regime but are weary of an uprising that has since devolved into a grinding and bloody civil war. Assad's government tightly restricts criticism in areas it controls.

But the group would have its work cut out for itself to have its peace initiative, centered on a cease-fire, gain traction. Many rebels look askance at any political plan short of Assad's immediate ouster, seeing it as a play for time.

Ambassadors from Iran and Russia attended Sunday's conference. Both countries support Assad, suggesting the regime authorized the gathering to bolster its own rhetoric that there should be a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis through dialogue.

A statement distributed to journalists said the participants at the conference have agreed on a number of principles, mainly "overthrowing the regime with all its symbols" while emphasizing the need for "peaceful struggle to achieve the goals of the revolution."

"It's our right to meet here in the capital to express our views without being subject to dictates and pressures or to be forced to make concessions," the NCB's head, Hassan Abdul-Azim, told The Associated Press.

The Syrian opposition suffers deep divisions between the largely exiled opposition and those based inside the country. While agreeing on the need to topple Assad, the two differ on the means. Unlike the Free Syrian Army rebel group and Syrian National Council made up largely of Syrian exiles, the NCB is opposed to the militarization of the Syrian uprising and any foreign military intervention. It is also more inclined to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Syrian 18-month-old crisis.

NCB leaders, most of them traditional, leftist opposition figures, accuse the rebels and the SNC of being beholden to Turkey, which shelters defected Syrian generals and opposition figures, as well as Gulf Arab countries who support the rebels.

The rebels in turn accuse the NCB of being cut off from grassroots opposition fighters on the ground.

The statement that emerged from Sunday's conference called for an immediate ceasefire accompanied with the full withdrawal of the Syrian army from towns and cities and the release of all political detainees and kidnapped people. This would be followed by the start of negotiations between the opposition and representatives of the Syrian government on a peaceful transition of power, it added.

The scenario outlined by the participants is similar to a six-point peace plan proposed by the former international peace envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan. That plan ended with Annan quitting the post last month after his cease-fire failed to take hold as violence escalated across the country.

Syria's bloody 18-month conflict, which activists say has killed nearly 30,000 people, has so far eluded all attempts at international mediation.

Rajaa al-Nasser, a member of the NCB, said Damascus authorities have permitted all Syrian political figures to attend the conference "without restrictions."

However, the NCB has said two of its senior leaders disappeared after returning to Damascus International Airport from a trip to China on Thursday, along with a friend who was to pick them up. It has blamed the regime for the disappearance.

The state-run news agency SANA quoted the Interior Ministry as saying "terrorist groups" kidnapped the three.

Haitham Manna, a Paris-based veteran dissident who heads the external branch of the NCB, said the Syrian revolution was launched from inside Syria and it was "only natural for us to speak on behalf of the revolution from inside Syria."

He said regime change in Syria was inevitable.

"This regime is dead in the hearts and minds of all Syrians ... there must be negotiations on a peaceful transition of power," he said in a telephone interview.

The Russian ambassador in Damascus lauded the conference, calling it a "direct implementation of the process of reforms launched by the Syrian government, including the freedom of expression."

Azmat Allah Kolmahmedov called for a peaceful political solution to the Syrian crisis.

"The convening of the conference is a clear evidence of the Syrian government's readiness to start a constructive and serious dialogue with all opposition factions that reject violence and foreign intervention and which are ready for an overall dialogue to reach a democratic and free Syria," he said.

Karam reported from Beirut.