Syria opens 'national dialogue', opposition absent

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 address.

"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 held."

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.