DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A prominent lawmaker from Syria's ruling party on Tuesday rejected preconditions for dialogue set by the opposition chief to help end nearly two years of bloodshed.
Fayez Sayegh told The Associated Press that dialogue between the Syrian government and its political opponents in the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition should start without preconditions.
Opposition chief Mouaz al-Khatib said on Monday he is extending his hand "to facilitate the peaceful departure" of the regime to save the country from destruction after 22 months of civil war and called on President Bashar Assad to begin releasing tens of thousands of political prisoners as a first step.
Sayegh said that the numbers of opposition supporters in Syrian custody cited by al-Khatib were exaggerated, adding that he felt the opposition aims to embarrass the regime by setting preconditions.
"What is important is for Syrians to meet and agree on common ground for talks," Sayegh said, adding that al-Khatib's proposals such as the prisoners' release should come "as a result of a dialogue, not before it begins."
Al-Khatib said last week he is willing to hold talks with the regime in Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey if that would help end the bloodshed. His offer marked a departure from the mainstream opposition's narrative insisting that Assad step down before any talks and has angered some of his colleagues who accused him of acting unilaterally.
Also on Tuesday, intense fighting between rebels and government troops broke out near a border crossing with Jordan, leaving 17 civilians — including two Jordanians — wounded, a Jordanian security official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to brief reporters.
Free Syrian Army spokesman Mohammed Etri said the fighting near the Nassib crossing had intensified over two days and was "decisive" because it was the first serious rebel attempt to seize posts and installations at the border with Jordan.
Monday's initiative by al-Khatib, whose opposition group is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, followed meetings he had held separately with Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich over the weekend. Russia and Iran are Syria's two closest allies.
Washington hailed al-Khatib's willingness for dialogue, but cautioned against thinking that his offer to sit down with the regime includes immunity for those responsible for tens of thousands of Syrian killed in the struggle to topple Assad.
"We've long said that those with blood on their hands in Syria need to be held accountable," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday, adding that the regime should accept al-Khatib's offer to talk if "it has any interest in peace."
More than 60,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to the United Nations. The revolt began as peaceful protest but turned into a civil war after some opposition groups took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
Human rights organizations say tens of thousands of opposition leaders, protesters and their families are being held by state security services in Syria.
Jamal Halaby and Dale Gavlak contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan