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Syria Envoy in Moscow as Russia Pressures Assad

The UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria held talks in Moscow Saturday to find a way out of the Syria conflict as after Russia upped the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to open talks with the rebels.

Lakhdar Brahimi met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov amid signs that Russia - the only world power with close ties to the Damascus regime - was playing a more active role in finding an end to the bloody crisis that has claimed over 45,000 lives.

His trip came amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Moscow on the Syria conflict that this week also saw a rare visit by the Syrian deputy foreign minister as well as Egypt's top diplomat.

Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that the talks with Brahimi were aimed "at ending the violence and launching a national dialogue in the country between the authorities and the opposition."

Brahimi met Lavrov at the foreign ministry guest house in central Moscow, with the two men later to hold a joint news conference on the results of their closed-door meeting.

In a clear shift from its tone in most of the 21-month conflict, Russia has in recent weeks started to countenance the possibility that Assad may not be able to stay in power, prompting hope Moscow will push him to accept a negotiated solution.

In contrast to Russia's past suspicion of the rebels battling the Assad regime, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Thursday Russia had made an offer of talks to the opposition Syria National Coalition.

However the head of the group - formed in November with the encouragement of the West - showed little enthusiasm for the idea, saying such talks could not take place in Moscow and demanding that Russia apologise for its past policy.

"We have said frankly that we will not go to Moscow," Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib told Al-Jazeera television.

Khatib said Russia should apologise for "interfering" in Syrian affairs, condemn "massacres" committed by the regime and issue a "clear call for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad."

If these conditions were met, talks could be held with the Russians "but only in an Arab country and if there is a clear agenda", he said.

Lavrov earlier this week urged the Assad regime through visiting Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad to put all options on the table and engage with the opposition in talks.

But Russia has steadfastly refused to explicitly call on Assad to step down, even though President Vladimir Putin acknowledged this month there was "need for a change" after the family dynasty's 40 years in power.

The fast-paced diplomacy came as violence continued to rage on the ground with forces loyal to Assad seizing a district of the central city of Homs after a fierce assault that sparked a humanitarian crisis.

"The army launched an offensive several days ago on the neighbourhood of Deir Baalbeh with heavy bombing, and the fighting and attacks continued until the rebels withdrew," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It said the day earlier that government air raids on the town of Al-Safira, south of second city Aleppo, killed 15 civilians, eight of them children.

In Deir Ezzor province in the east, rebel fighters overran the Tanak oilfield east of the provincial capital, the watchdog said.

Video footage posted on the Internet by activists showed the bloodied corpses of six soldiers they said were killed in the fighting. Its authenticity could not be verified.

The Observatory said three rebel fighters were also killed.

With concerns intensifying about the humanitarian situation, UN chief Ban Ki-moon will chair an international conference on January 30 in Kuwait to raise money for Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict, the United Nations said.

The UN is calling for $1.5 billion (750 million euros) to help through June nearly one million Syrian refugees and four million other Syrians affected by the conflict but who remain the country.

The UN refugees office registered 500,000 Syrian refugees and expects nearly a million more by June 2013 -- figures that represent 4.4 percent of the pre-crisis population.

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