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Hague welcomes Syrian peace talks

The Syrian regime must take steps immediately to show it is ready to end violence and negotiate a political transition, Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he welcomed an agreement to hold peace talks early next year.

UK support for the opposition National Coalition would be "extended and sustained" after the group agreed to attend the United Nations-brokered meeting in Geneva from January 22, Mr Hague said.

They were "the heart and lead" of the forces ranged against the regime, he said.

Disputes over who should represent the diverse elements fighting government forces, the attendance of regional powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia and the fate of president Bashar Assad had held up US/Russia-led efforts to secure talks.

Britain is among countries who argue that Assad cannot be allowed to continue in power as part of the implementation of a "roadmap" towards a political solution adopted at a previous summit in the Swiss city in June 2012.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it would be "unforgivable not to seize this opportunity to bring an end to the suffering and destruction" after the breakthrough in efforts to end the civil war which has so far claimed at least 100,000 lives.

"I welcome the announcement by the United Nations that the "Geneva II" peace conference on Syria will begin on 22nd January," Mr Hague said of the first such meeting between regime and opposition representatives.

"A negotiated political transition in Syria is the only way to end the conflict and alleviate Syria's humanitarian crisis.

"When I hosted a meeting of the 'London 11' core group of the Friends of Syria on October 22, we resolved to put our collective weight behind the Geneva II process, making clear that a political transition would mean that Assad can have no future role in Syria.

"I greatly welcome the opposition National Coalition's decision to participate, recognising them as being at the heart and lead of the opposition delegation. Our support for them will be extended and sustained throughout the Geneva II process.

"The Syrian regime is now in the spotlight. They need to take immediate steps to alleviate humanitarian suffering across the country, and stop their brutal tactics which include besieging and attacking civilian areas.

"In the coming weeks they need to demonstrate that they will go to the Geneva II talks prepared to negotiate a political transition and end the violence."

The UN said the talks would seek the establishment, " based on mutual consent, of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including over military and security entities."

It called on both sides to go into the meeting " with a serious intention to end a war that has already left well over 100,000 dead, driven almost nine million from their homes, left countless missing and detained, sent tremors through the region and forced unacceptable burdens on Syria's neighbours".

There also had to be "meaningful support for constructive negotiations" shown by outside powers and action to ensure the end to the violence , improved humanitarian access, the release of detainees and the return of refugees.

Asked whether David Cameron was pleased that a date had been set for the Geneva II talks, the Prime Minister's official spokesman told a daily Westminster media briefing: "As the Foreign Secretary said, the Government welcomes the announcement.

"Our position has been that a political solution is needed to bring about the political transition which is the way to bring about an end to the violence and the bloodshed.

"These have been, and remain, our objectives."

Questioned on the issue of whether Assad should be allowed to attend the talks as a representative of the regime, the spokesman said: "The talks need to be acceptable to both sides and we, along with others in the international community, want to ensure that those attending these discussions are committed to playing a constructive role."

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