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Jan 26, 7:20 AM EST

Syrian president dismisses talks with 'puppets' in interview


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In new blow, Syrian opposition shuns Russia peace initiative

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Russia and Syria played down any hopes of a breakthrough in talks set to begin Monday in Moscow, while much of the opposition shied away.

The four-day gathering in Moscow, billed as a meeting to "establish personal contact" between some opposition members and government officials, underscored diplomatic fatigue with the four-year conflict that has killed over 220,000 people.

President Bashar Assad refuses any option that would have him step down. The opposition is fractured between Western-backed opposition figures, rebels lacking effective arms and jihadis surging through Syria.

"These are not talks, it is a meeting," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a press conference. In the first phase, opposition members were to agree on "common approaches toward talks with the government."

After two days, "the opposition will be joined by official representatives of the Syrian republic, again simply in order to establish personal contact... We never had any other goals for the Moscow meeting."

Lavrov's comments came as Assad also played down the talks in an interview with a U.S. magazine published Monday.

"What is going on in Moscow is not negotiations about the solution; it's only preparations for the conference," said Assad in the Foreign Affairs interview.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is not attending Moscow talks.

In Syria, fighters seized a military base near the southern city of Sheikh Miskeen.

Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist who lives nearby, said Western-backed rebels and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front, captured the Brigade 82 base Sunday night.

The fighters seized weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, he said.

The advance strengthens the rebels' grip on Sheikh Miskeen, an important southern transportation hub.

In Damascus, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory said seven people were killed overnight as rebels in surrounding towns fired the heaviest barrage of rockets at the city in months. State-run media said the rocket fire killed three people. Conflicting casualty tolls are routine in the aftermath of attacks.

The barrage came after government shelling on a nearby rebel-held area killed 35 people Friday.

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Hadid reported from Beirut. Laura Mills contributed from Moscow.

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