Syria Proposes Aleppo Cease-Fire, Prisoner Swap

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, unseen, in Moscow on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.

BEIRUT - Syria's top diplomat said Friday his country is prepared to implement a cease-fire in the shattered city of Aleppo and exchange detainees with opposition forces as a confidence-building measure before a peace conference opens next week in Switzerland.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told journalists about the cease-fire plan after meeting in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. He did not divulge details of the plan, which would contain "measures to enforce security" in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

A member of the opposition dismissed the overture as "last-minute maneuvering" by the Syrian government to please Russia, its main ally in the international community and a sponsor of the conference to halt the civil war.

"As a result of our confidence in the Russian position and its role in stopping the Syrian bloodshed, today I submitted to Minister Lavrov a plan for security arrangements that have to do with the city of Aleppo," al-Moallem said. "I asked him to make necessary arrangements to guarantee its implementation and specify the zero hour for military operations to cease."

The comments came as Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, was scheduled to meet in Istanbul later Friday to decide whether to participate in the peace talks.

The opposition has remained adamant that the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad is a condition for any deal, and al-Moallem's overtures in Moscow appeared to be an attempt to coax the group into attending the talks.

The opposition has accused the government of reneging on promises in the past and declaring cease-fires only to buy time.

Haitham al-Maleh, a senior member of the coalition, said the coalition was inclined to vote in favor of participating in the Geneva talks.

"We are not obliged to stay there forever. If we find any deviation in the negotiations, we'll withdraw. ... We'll find a way to say `goodbye' since it's an issue where there can be no bargaining," he told The Associated Press in Istanbul.

The meeting between the Russian and Syrian sides was part of a final diplomatic push ahead of the peace conference that has been dubbed Geneva 2, which opens Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.

But prospects for the talks - the first between the warring sides in Syria since the start of the conflict - are dim, because each party shows no inclination for compromise.

Al-Moallem made clear that Syria's priority at the conference was to discuss "combating terrorism." The Syrian government has repeatedly said that it was out of the question for Assad to step down.

He said if Lavrov's efforts were successful, the Aleppo cease-fire plan could be used as a model for other parts of the country, where the conflict between Assad's forces and the opposition has claimed more than 130,000 lives since March 2011.

Al-Moallem also said his government has agreed "in principle" to release prisoners from Syrian jails in exchange for people kidnapped by armed groups, but he said there needs to be an exchange of lists and a mechanism for implementation.

A cease-fire and a prisoner exchange have been key demands of the opposition for the planned talks. But it was unclear whether al-Moallem's announcement would sway the opposition meeting in Istanbul, which is deeply skeptical of any government overtures.

Nizar al-Hrakey, a member of the Syrian National Coalition who is one of 44 who walked out of the group last week after failure to come up with a unified stance on Geneva, described al-Moallem's offer as an attempt at deception.

He said the coalition was being subjected to "enormous pressure by the international community with an undercurrent of threats, even," to go to Geneva, and that the situation in Istanbul was "very foggy." The coalition meeting, which was supposed to begin at midday Friday, was delayed by several hours because many members did not show up.

On Thursday, Lavrov met with the foreign minister of Iran, Syria's staunchest regional backer. Lavrov strongly urged the West to invite Tehran to participate in the peace conference.

Heavy battles raged Friday between Syrian government forces and rebels near the border with Lebanon.

A barrage of 20 missiles and shells from Syria slammed into Lebanese border towns and villages, killing seven people, including at least three children who were playing outside, Lebanese security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The attack was the latest incident in what has been an increasing spillover of Syria's civil war into Lebanon, where violence from rockets, car bombs and sectarian clashes has claimed dozens of lives in the past year.

Most of Friday's casualties occurred in the town of Arsal, where thousands of Syrians have fled to escape the violence in the past months. The state-run news agency said the attacks also wounded 15 people.

It was not immediately clear who fired the rockets, which struck several towns and villages in the northern Bekaa Valley, including Baalbek, Hermel and Arsal. A security official in the area said it was not known whether they were errant shells or deliberate firing.

Residents said heavy fighting between Syrian troops and rebels has been taking place on the Syrian side of the border since Thursday. Loud explosions could be heard from across the border and smoke billowed from the Syrian side.

On Thursday, a car bomb struck the center of the predominantly Shiite town of Hermel, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the border and a stronghold of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group. At least three people were killed and more than 20 wounded in that attack.


Mills reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Onur Cakir in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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