Syria opens `national dialogue`, opposition absent

Syria opened a `national dialogue` on Sunday that it hailed as a step towards multi-party democracy after five decades of Baath party rule.

Damascus: Syria opened a "national dialogue"
on Sunday that it hailed as a step towards multi-party democracy
after five decades of Baath party rule, but its credibility
was undermined by an opposition boycott.

The foreign ministry, meanwhile, called in the French and
US ambassadors today to deliver a "strong protest" over their
visit to the flashpoint city of Hama last week, the state news
agency SANA said.

Some 200 delegates taking part in the dialogue, including
independent MPs and members of the Baath party, in power since
1963, observed a minute`s silence in memory of the "martyrs"
before the playing of the national anthem.

But opposition figures boycotted the meeting in protest
at the government`s continued deadly crackdown on
unprecedented protests against President Bashar al-Assad`s
rule that erupted in mid-March.

"We are going to hold a comprehensive national dialogue
during which we will announce Syria`s transition towards a
multi-party democratic state in which everyone will be equal
and able to participate in the building of the nation`s
future," Vice President Faruq al-Shara said in his opening

"This dialogue is beginning at an awkward moment and in a
climate of suspicion... and there are many obstacles, some
natural and some manufactured, to a transition towards another
point," Shara said.

"This dialogue is not a concession by the government to
the people but an obligation for every citizen."

Shara said that within a week the interior ministry would
implement a government decision to "remove all obstacles to
any citizen returning to Syria or travelling abroad.

"Circumstances have prevented the full implementation of
several laws promulgated recently, including that ending the
state of emergency," in force for five decades, the vice
president said.

"We need to get out of this vicious circle... and
organising demonstrations without prior approval is leading to
unjustified violence," he said.

"We need to recognise, however, that without the
sacrifices made by the Syrian people who have shed blood in
more than one province, this meeting could not have been

Dissident writer Tayyeb Tizini, who was among the few
figures close to the opposition to join the meeting, expressed
regret that the government had not halted its crackdown on
major protest centres ahead of the dialogue`s launch.

"The bullets are still being fired in Homs and Hama. I
would have hoped that that would have stopped before the
meeting. That`s what`s necessary," Tizini told delegates.


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