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West hails Syria opposition vote to join peace talks

ISTANBUL -- Western leaders have hailed a decision by Syria's opposition to attend an international peace conference next week alongside representatives of a regime they despise and remain determined to overthrow.

After weeks of hesitation and threats to boycott the talks, the deeply divided National Coalition said it will go to Switzerland, with the sole aim of toppling President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian leader was quoted on Sunday as saying his departure is not up for discussion, in a Russian media report that his office quickly denied.

“If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start,” Assad told Russian parliament members during a meeting in Damascus, according to Interfax news agency.

“This issue is not under discussion. Only the Syrian people can decide who should take part in elections,” said Assad, whose has ruled over Syria since 2000 after the death of his father and veteran strongman Hafez al-Assad.

But the presidency in Damascus said the comments published by Interfax were “inaccurate,” without elaborating.

Assad's brands its opponents as “terrorists,” but it has made concessions ahead of the conference that opens on Wednesday.

The Geneva II meeting aims to set up a transitional government to end a brutal war estimated to have killed more than 130,00 people and forced millions from their homes in nearly three years.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the opposition's “courageous” decision to attend the talks, describing it as a “path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians.”

“We all know that the process ahead will be difficult, but I say directly to the Syrian people: we will stand by you every mile of the journey as you seek to achieve the freedom and dignity that all Syrians deserve,” he said in remarks echoed by Britain, France and Germany.

The Coalition voted Saturday by 58 to 14 to attend the peace conference, with only 75 of the around 120 delegates taking part in the secret ballot — a sign that strong disagreement persists.

Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said the group was going to Switzerland only for the purpose of removing the “butcher” Assad from power.

“The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution... and first and foremost stripping the butcher (Assad) of all his powers,” he said.

The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Selim Idriss, called for a “peaceful resolution” to the conflict, and urged the opposition to uphold the “goals of the revolution” and remove Assad and his cronies from power.

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