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May 11, 9:39 AM EDT

Syria's main opposition group not attending Geneva talks



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ISTANBUL (AP) -- The main Syrian opposition group in exile said on Monday that it is not attending low-level consultations taking place in Geneva and hosted by the U.N. envoy to the war-torn country.

The announcement came amid a string of defeats by government forces in the northwestern Idlib province and also in southern Syria, giving a boost to the opposition.

Syrian National Coalition chief Khaled Khoja told reporters in Istanbul that the opposition insists President Bashar Assad's government is responsible for Syria's conflict, now in its fifth year - a civil war that has killed at least 220,000 people.

Khoja spoke at the press conference alongside Louay Hussein, a longtime Syria-based opposition activist and leader of Building the Syrian State party who recently fled to Turkey.

Hussein said Assad's government "is not qualified to participate in any political process" and appealed to the international community to save Syria from "tyrannical forces" working toward a future in which "there will be no Syria on the map for a long period." He also lashed out at other destructive forces, such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida's branch in Syria the Nusra Front.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura last Tuesday launched the consultations in Geneva in the hopes of restarting peace talks. Two past rounds of direct negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition in the Swiss city failed in early 2014.

De Mistura said in a statement later Monday that he has taken note of the coalition's decision but still looks forward to the arrival of an envoy of the group to Geneva so that he can hear the opposition's standpoint in person.

"This is indeed the whole purpose of the exercise in itself," de Mistura said. The U.N. envoy remains "appreciative of ongoing efforts by the SOC (coalition) to contribute to a long overdue peaceful solution in Syria."

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