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In message to Pope, Syrian President says he's ready for peace talks

By Michael Martinez, CNN
December 30, 2013 -- Updated 1049 GMT (1849 HKT)
Rescues climb on the rubble of a destroyed building following an airstrike in Aleppo on December 24.
Rescues climb on the rubble of a destroyed building following an airstrike in Aleppo on December 24.
  • President al-Assad says foreign support of terrorists in civil war must end
  • "The crisis will be solved through national dialogue among the Syrians," he adds
  • Vatican tells envoy the Pope "is constantly following the situation in Syria"
  • A U.N. mission will miss a deadline on removing chemical weapon materials

(CNN) -- In a message to Pope Francis, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his government is ready to participate in next month's peace talks but noted outside countries must stop supporting what he called terrorist groups in the country's civil war, Syria's state-run news agency said Saturday.

Al-Assad sent the message through intermediaries and expressed appreciation for how the Pope on Christmas urged an end to the violence and suffering in Syria, state-run SANA reported.

"The message also highlighted that stopping terrorism requires having the countries which are involved in supporting the armed terrorist groups stop providing any sort of military, logistic or training support, noting that this support was provided by some of Syria's neighbors and other known countries in the Middle East and abroad," SANA said.

The Syrian president's message said that "the crisis will be solved through national dialogue among the Syrians and under a Syrian leadership without foreign intervention as to enable the Syrians to determine their future and leadership through ballots."

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The message was delivered during a meeting between Syrian Minister of State Joseph Sweid and the Pope's secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, SANA said.

Parolin told Sweid that the pope "is constantly following the situation in Syria" and "Pope Francis affirms the need to solve the crisis in Syria through dialogue among the Syrians without foreign intervention," SANA said.

The papacy confirmed the communique, saying the Syrian leader's "delegation brought a message from President Assad to the Holy Father and explained the position of the Syrian government," the Vatican's website said.

The Syrian presidency's Twitter account also posted details about the message to the pope, saying that the Syrian people "are the only rightful owners in deciding on his future through their choices at the ballot boxes."

Al-Assad's dispatch to the pope comes before a United Nations-brokered peace conference that will be held in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition beginning January 22.

Next month's talks are called Geneva II, a follow-up to a June 2012 meeting in which international parties laid out a peace plan that calls for a transitional government body in a civil war that began in March 2011. The Geneva I meeting left open the question of whether al-Assad must leave office.

"The message stressed the Syrian government's readiness to participate in the international conference on Syria 'Geneva 2,' highlighting that combating the terrorism that targets citizens is a decisive factor in making any peaceful solution to the crisis a success," SANA reported from the Vatican.

Meanwhile, a U.N.-related mission said Saturday it's likely to miss a December 31 deadline for removing important chemicals from the country, but overall it's making "important progress" in eliminating chemical weapons in Syria.

The mission blamed the delay on "the continuing volatility in overall security conditions" and on "Logistical challenges coupled with inclement weather."

Syria's chemical weapons are targeted for removal and elimination by the end of June 2014, said the Joint Mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations.

"Preparations continue in readiness for the transport of most of the critical chemical material from the Syrian Arab Republic for outside destruction. However, at this stage, transportation of the most critical chemical material before 31 December is unlikely," the mission said.

The Syrian civil war continued to its death toll Saturday when at least 25 people in a rebel-held area of the Syrian city of Aleppo were killed in an airstrike, a Syrian opposition group said.

Government helicopters dropped barrel bombs striking a vegetable market and and an area near a hospital in the neighborhood of Tariq Al-Bab, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in statement. Women and children were among the dead, the group said.

The regime of al-Assad has been accused of dropping barrel bombs -- drums packed with explosives and shrapnel -- on Aleppo. The opposition Local Coordination Committees said hundreds have been killed in the city this month.

CNN cannot independently verify daily death tolls, but the United Nations says well over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011.

READ: UK Foreign Secretary Hague: No role for Bashar al-Assad in future Syria

READ: Bashar al-Assad: A ruler shaped by violence, indecision, say former insiders

CNN's Slma Shelbayah and Khushbu Shah contributed to this report.

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