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Opposition rejects regime talks

A high-profile international mission to end the Syrian crisis is stumbling before it begins as the opposition rejects calls by UN envoy Kofi Annan for dialogue with President Bashar Assad as pointless and out of touch after a year of violence.

The dispute exposes the widening gap between opposition leaders who say only military aid can stop Mr Assad's regime, and Western powers who fear more weapons will exacerbate the conflict.

As the prospects for diplomacy faltered, Turkey reported the defections of three high-ranking military officers - two generals and a colonel - as well as two sergeants, a significant development because until now most army defectors have been low-level conscripts.

A deputy oil minister also deserted Mr Assad's regime this week, making him the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition.

The White House welcomed the reported defections as a sign the regime is cracking from within and that Mr Assad will eventually fall.

Western and Arab powers are backing Kofi Annan's two-day trip to Syria, starting Saturday, when he is to meet with Mr Assad.

The former UN secretary-general - now a special UN-Arab League envoy for Syria - has said he seeks to start a "political process" to end the crisis and warned against further militarisation of a conflict that appears headed toward civil war.

"I hope that no one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation," Mr Annan said in Cairo. "I believe any further militarisation would make the situation worse."

He said he would present "realistic" solutions, but did not elaborate.

Opposition leaders and activists rejected Mr Annan's plans, saying they ignore the nature of Mr Assad's authoritarian regime as well as the thousands killed by security forces, many while peacefully calling for political reform.

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