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Syrian government says ready for prisoner swaps with rebels

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government said on Monday it was ready to agree prisoner swaps with rebel groups, a potential confidence-building measure as the United Nations prepares to convene new peace talks.

The Syrian opposition has long demanded a release of detainees held by the government as one of several humanitarian actions they say must take place ahead of any negotiations over Syria's political future.

The government was "always ready" to exchange prisoners in its jails for people "kidnapped by terrorist groups", Syrian state media cited an official source as saying.

A rebel official told Reuters the demand had been raised during indirect talks with the government in the Kazakh capital of Astana. A second rebel official however dismissed the official statement as a ruse, saying the number of detainees held by Damascus vastly outnumbered the few held by rebels.

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The next round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks are due to be held in Geneva next week, part of a new diplomatic effort backed by Russia and Turkey to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Syrian government and rebel delegations held indirect talks in Astana last month in a parallel effort to shore up a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia.

Kazakhstan says it has invited Syrian government and rebel delegations to further meetings in Astana on Feb. 15-16. The rebel side has yet to say whether they will attend.

Monday's state media report said the Syrian government was always ready to exchange prisoners, "particularly in the framework of efforts made for the coming Astana meeting".

RUSSIAN PRESSURE

Asked about the report, the first rebel official said any breakthrough would depend on Russian pressure on the government. Moscow is President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally.

"If the Russians apply pressure in the next two days, something may happen," said the first rebel official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The second rebel official however said the government was not serious about releasing detainees, saying it appeared to be trying to present a cooperative face ahead of the Geneva talks.

"It is a political game," said the official.

This month, in a rare move, the Syrian government and rebel groups swapped dozens of women prisoners and hostages, some of them with their children, in Hama province in northwestern Syria.

Amnesty International said in a report this month that the government had executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings at a military jail near Damascus. The Syrian justice ministry called the report "devoid of truth".

The main Syrian opposition body on Sunday approved its delegation to the Geneva talks that are due to start on Feb. 20. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the opposition for approving the delegation.

The talks "are a first step for serious progress in finding a transition that allows for a political solution in which all Syrians feel represented," he said.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Louise Ireland and Richard Lough)

 
 
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