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Published: Monday January 20, 2014 MYT 7:30:01 PM
Updated: Monday January 20, 2014 MYT 7:30:01 PM

Syria peace talks must focus on 'fighting terrorism' - Assad

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ruled out on Monday making opposition figures ministers and said peace talks in Switzerland should aim to "fight terrorism", striking a defiant tone two days before the talks are due to start.

In an interview with news agency AFP, Assad said he would likely seek a new term in presidential elections this year, a statement certain to anger opposition figures who say the point of the talks should be to remove him from power.

If they happen, the peace talks are unlikely to bring a swift end to the nearly three-year conflict. The government and the fractured opposition have widely different positions, not least on Assad's status in any transitional government.

On Monday, the main political opposition group in exile said it would not attend the talks unless U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon retracted an invitation to Iran, one of Assad's staunchest allies.

Assad said the main objective of the talks should be to discuss "the fight against terrorism", according to a copy of the interview published online. The Syrian leader brands as "terrorists" the rebel fighters seeking his removal from office.

"The Geneva conference must lead to clear results regarding the fight against terrorism ... That would be the most important result of the conference. Any political result that did not include the fight against terrorism would have no value," he said.

Assad ruled out the opposition National Coalition obtaining ministerial positions in a new government, calling this "totally unrealistic", and said he was likely to run for president again in elections scheduled for June.

"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," Assad said. "If there is public desire and a public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election."

(Reporting By John Irish and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)

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