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‘Peace talks with Syrian regime equal to betrayal’

DAMASCUS (AFP) – Powerful armed groups in Syria said attending peace talks or negotiating with the regime would be an act of betrayal, as fighting raged on Sunday near Iraq and in Homs.

The joint declaration by the 19 Islamist groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad cast further doubt on whether the long-delayed peace talks dubbed “Geneva 2” will actually go ahead.

It also comes as the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, prepares to travel to Damascus on Monday, according to pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan.

“We announce that the Geneva 2 conference is not, nor will it ever be our people s choice or our revolution s demand,” the groups said in a statement read out by Suqur al-Sham brigade chief Ahmad Eissa al-Sheikh in a video posted online.

“We consider it just another part of the conspiracy to throw our revolution off track and to abort it.”

The 19 rebel groups warned that anyone who went to such talks would be committing “treason, and … would have to answer for it before our courts”.

The statement comes weeks after dozens of major insurgent groups across Syria said the Western-backed opposition umbrella grouping, the National Coalition, had “failed”.

The Geneva talks slated for next month aim to bring rebel and regime representatives to the table in a bid to seek a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict, which is estimated to have killed more than 115,000 people since it erupted in March 2011.

The National Coalition is to meet on November 9 to decide whether to take part in the peace talks but has stated emphatically it will only attend if there are guarantees Assad will step down.

Its leader Ahmad Jarba also said this week that no talks can take place unless women and children held in regime jails are freed.

Assad for his part has said “the factors are not yet in place” for such talks, and he has repeatedly rejected negotiations with any group with ties to the rebels or to foreign states.

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