MOSCOW - Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday Damascus was ready to talk to the country's armed opposition, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.

"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," the minister said during a visit to Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Itar-Tass did not report any further comments by the minister on the prospect for talks, and did not make clear whether the government had 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 opposition Syrian National Coalition has said it is willing to negotiate a peace deal to end the country's civil war but that President Bashar Assad must step down and cannot be a party to any settlement.

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A Syrian rebel leader said on Monday there could be no negotiations to end the civil war until Assad stepped down and leaders of the army and security forces were put on trial.

"We will not go (into talks) unless these demands are realised," Brigadier Selim Idris, head of a military command, told Al Arabiya Television.

He was speaking after Moualem said in Moscow that the government was ready to hold talks with Assad's armed opponents.

Moualem's comments echoed remarks last week by another Syrian government minister, Ali Haidar, who is not in Assad's inner circle of decision-makers.

Russia has used its clout in the UN Security Council to protect Assad from Western and Arab pressure though 22 months of violence that has killed nearly 70,000 people in Syria since it began with a government crackdown on protests.

Moscow says Assad's exit from power must not be a precondition for a political settlement.

Coalition president Moaz Alkhatib formulated the initiative in broad terms last month without consulting the coalition, catching the 70-member assembly by surprise. A powerful bloc in the coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organized group in the political opposition, criticized the initiative as harming the revolution.

The Russian government hopes Alkhatib will visit soon in search of a breakthrough for the nearly two-year-long conflict.

Formal backing by the coalition to Alkhatib's initiative would give it more weight internationally and undermine Assad supporters' argument that the opposition is too divided to be considered a serious player, opposition sources said.

Coalition politburo member Walid Bunni asserted that "Bashar and his cohorts will not be party to any talks. We will not regard those present from the government's side as his representatives."

He said members of Assad's Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since a 1963 coup, can participate in the proposed talks if "their hands are clean of blood".

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