By Thomas Grove and Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria is ready to hold talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday, in the clearest offer yet of negotiations with rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
But Moualem said Syria would continue its fight "against terrorism", a reference to its conflict with anti-Assad rebels in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed.
"We are ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it ... Even with those who have weapons in their hands. Because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue," Russia's Itar-Tass news agency quoted Moualem as saying.
He was speaking in Moscow, a staunch ally of Assad, where he was meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told reporters in Cairo he had not yet been in contact with Damascus about any talks, but said he had postponed trips to Russia and the United States "until we see how things develop".
Syria's government and opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts - softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict which has driven nearly a million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.
But the opposition has said any political solution to the crisis must be based on the removal of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970. The government has rejected any pre-conditions for talks aimed at ending the violence, which started as a peaceful pro-democracy uprising.
The two sides also differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in rebel-held parts of Syria. Assad's government says any serious dialogue must be held on Syrian territory under its control.
Adding to the difficulty of any negotiated settlement is the lack of influence that Syria's political opposition - mostly operating outside the country - has over the rebel forces on the ground who appear determined to fight on until Assad goes.
Itar-Tass did not report any further comments by the minister on the prospect for talks and did not say whether Moualem spelt out any conditions for starting dialogue.
"What's happening in Syria is a war against terrorism," the agency quoted him as saying. "We will strongly adhere to a peaceful course and continue to fight against terrorism."
The Syrian National Coalition said on Friday it was willing to negotiate a peace deal, but insisted Assad could not be party to any settlement - a demand with which the president appears in no mood to comply.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Assad had told him he intended to remain president until his term ends in 2014 and would then run for re-election.
The political chasm between the government and rebels and a lack of opposition influence over rebel fighters has allowed fighting to rage on for 23 months in Syria, while international diplomatic deadlock has prevented effective intervention.
Moualem's comments echoed remarks last week by Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, who said he was ready to meet the armed opposition. But Haidar drew a distinction between what said might be "preparatory talks" and formal negotiations.
Assad, announcing plans last month for a national dialogue to address the crisis, said that there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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