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UK official says talks within Syria desirable

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Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2013 9:16 am

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Britain's foreign secretary said Thursday that he welcomed the surprise declaration by the top leader of the Syrian opposition that he would negotiate with members of President Bashar Assad's regime in an effort to end the nearly two-year civil war, which the U.N. says has killed more than 60,000 people.

William Hague said dialogue was desirable, but added that any transitional government could not include Assad himself.

"Of course we want to see a political, a diplomatic solution in Syria," Hague said Thursday on his way into a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels. "We've always wanted to see, as we agreed in Geneva last year, a transitional government made up of members of the current regime and members of the opposition, based on mutual consent. And mutual consent of course means that Assad could not be part of such a transitional government."

The remarks Wednesday by Moaz al-Khatib marked a departure from the opposition line, which has been categorical refusal to talk to the government.

Nevertheless, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said he was "very pessimistic" about the situation in Syria and foresaw a long civil war.

The 27 EU foreign ministers also adopted a statement encouraging ECOWAS, a grouping of West African countries, to accelerate its military deployment to Mali, and offered logistical and financial help. But the ministers also said they were alarmed by reports of human rights violations and urged Malian authorities to investigate immediately and to cooperate with the International Criminal Court to hold perpetrators responsible.

In Mali, where French and African troops are wresting control of the north from Islamist radicals, the EU has already authorized a mission to train the Malian army, in the hope that it will be able to maintain control of the territory after the international troops have left. EU foreign ministers were expected to take the formal decision to launch the mission, which will involve about 500 people, in February. The mission, which will take place near the capital, Bamako, and avoid combat, is expected to begin April 1.

Several ministers said they were very concerned about what they saw as a move away from democracy in Egypt, where the president, Mohammed Morsi, has imposed a 30-day state of emergency and curfew on three Suez Canal provinces hit hardest by violent protests and vowed to take even harsher measures if peace is not restored. The foreign ministers suggested that the country might receive less aid from the EU if the trend continued.

Also, the EU's top foreign policy official said Thursday that she is confident negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will resume soon. Last week, her spokesman had suggested that Iran was willfully delaying new nuclear talks with six world powers by not agreeing to a venue and setting new preconditions for the negotiations.

Many international officials fear Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.

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Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don-Melvin .

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