BEIRUT — The Syrian government has agreed "in principle" to attend a conference proposed by Russia and the United States on ending the Arab country's conflict, Russia's foreign ministry said Friday.
It was the first confirmation that President Bashar al-Assad's government would be willing to take part in the talks with the opposition.
But despite the announcement from Moscow, one of Assad's staunchest allies, Damascus has not offered any definitive statement on the proposed talks.
Russia and the United States joined efforts earlier this month to convene an international conference to bring representatives of Assad's regime and the opposition to the negotiating table. The aim of the talks would be to establish the outlines of a transitional government as a way out of the crisis.
More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.
The U.S.-Russian plan, similar to the one set out last year in Geneva, calls for talks on a transitional government and an open-ended cease-fire.
The Moscow announcement came after days of talks there between Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and Russian officials.
Russia's Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in televised remarks Friday that the Syrian government has "agreed in principle" to participate in the conference in Geneva, which is expected within two weeks.
"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," Lukashevich said.
He added, however, that 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, the country's main opposition group that has called on Assad to step down.
In Turkey, where the coalition is holding a three-day conference, an opposition figure expressed doubts over Moscow's announcement, questioning why Damascus has said nothing on the subject.
"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," said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition coalition.
The United States, along with key European and Arab supporters of Syria's opposition, said on 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.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday acknowledged the difficulties of launching peace talks. "Nobody has any illusions about how difficult, complicated, what a steep climb that is," he said during a visit to Israel.
Fighting continued across Syria on Friday, and state media 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 clashes were underway between rebels and government troops at the prison and that a large fire had broken out at the facility.
The fighting came a week after Assad's forces repelled a rebel raid on the prison that sought to free hundreds of political prisoners.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense fighting was also continuing in the western Syrian town of Qusair, near the border with Lebanon.
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.
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