Syria prolongs passports, meeting opposition talk demand

BEIRUT Thu Feb 28, 2013 6:29pm GMT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria extended passport terms on Thursday for its nationals abroad, meeting a prerequisite set by the opposition for peace talks with representatives of President Bashar al-Assad.

Damascus has shown increased willingness to hold talks with the opposition to end the 23-month-old conflict which has left 70,000 dead. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday that the government would even speak to armed rebels.

State news agency SANA said the Ministry of Interior extended the validity of Syrian passports to 10 years from six and that all expired passports for Syrian nationals abroad would be renewed for two years.

Syrian expatriates are unable to travel on expired passports and many Syrians abroad complain they have faced problems in renewing or getting residency visas for out-of-date documents.

Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said he would speak to Assad's representatives if expired passports were extended for two years. He also demanded 160,000 prisoners be released prior to talks.

Damascus and some opposition figures have softened their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a civil war 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 and whose forces cracked down on months of peaceful protests before the opposition took up arms.

Khatib has said he is not in contact with Damascus about any talks.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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