Assad offer 'one-sided and sectarian'


International peace envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi dismissed a speech by Bashar al-Assad, saying the Syrian president's proposal to end the crisis was no better than previous failed initiatives.

"I'm afraid what has come out is very much a repeat of previous initiatives that obviously did not work ... it's not really different and perhaps is even more sectarian and one-sided," he told the BBC.

"The time of reforms granted magnanimously from above has passed. People want to have a say in how they are governed and they want to take hold of their own future."

Russian and US diplomats plan to hold a meeting with Mr Brahimi on Friday in Geneva, it was reported today.

Russian and US diplomats held two trilateral meetings last month with Mr Brahimi, who is trying to find a diplomatic solution to end the nearly 22-month-old conflict between Syrian Dr Assad's government and its opponents.

Russia and the United States both support Mr Brahimi's efforts to forge a peace deal based on an agreement reached by world powers in Geneva in June, which called for the creation of a transitional governing body, but they are at odds over Dr Assad.

Russia says Dr Assad's exit from power must not be a precondition for a political solution in Syria, where more than 60,000 have been killed since the conflict began with a government crackdown on protests in March 2011.

Meanwhile, Syria's government and rebel militias began the biggest prisoner exchange in the 22-month civil war, a deal built around the freeing of 48 Iranians.

The release of the Iranians, captured by opposition fighters as they arrived for a pilgrimage five months ago, was followed by the start of the freeing by president Bashar al- Assad's government of 2,130 civilians, Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency said today.

Some are viewed as insurgents by the government.

The deal was mediated by Turkey and Qatar, Anatolia said. At least four Turks were among those released, it said.

"It is the largest prisoner swap in Syria so far," said Osman Atalay, a senior official of the Turkish Islamic charity group IHH, which helped negotiate the deal. "The civilians will be released in groups today and tomorrow; all Iranians have been set free."

More than 1,000 have left prison so far, Bulent Yildirim, the group's head, told Anatolia from Damascus.

Prisoner releases on a much smaller scale have been reported during the war, with a Syrian rebel group freeing two of the 11 Lebanese Shias it abducted last year while demanding that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah apologise for his support of the Assad regime.

Human rights groups like London-based Amnesty International have accused both sides in Syria of unlawfully killing prisoners.

The swap was a "group effort" and did not involve Syria's armed forces, Khalaf al-Meftah, Syria's deputy information minister, told Iran's state-run Arabic-language Al- Alam news channel today.

Iran is Assad's closest ally. The 48 Iranians handed over to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus are "healthy" and in good shape, Hassan Qashqavi, Iranian deputy foreign minister, told the state-run Mehr news agency.

Press TV showed them being handed bunches of white flowers as they entered a Damascus hotel. IHH said it had sought to free civilians including a Palestinian journalist, Bashar Fahmi Kadumi, who was working for the US-funded Iraqi television station al-Hurra, Anatolia said.

Mr Kadumi went missing shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on August 20th to cover the war in the northern city of Aleppo. Mr Yildirim said by phone that Mr Kadumi's situation and whereabouts aren't yet clear.

Turkey, a former Assad ally, is now backing the mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups fighting to oust him. The conflict, which began in March 2011, has left about 60,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.

At least 20 people have been killed across Syria today, including seven in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.