BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of critics of President Bashar Assad met Monday in the Syrian capital for the first time since the start of a three-month uprising against his rule, but the meeting was denounced by some activists as a government-sanctioned ruse to give legitimacy to the regime.
The meeting began with the Syrian national anthem, followed by a minute's silence in honor of Syrians who have been killed in the protests.
Participants, some of them prominent opposition figures who have long been persecuted by the regime, say that though the meeting had been approved by authorities, it would not include government representatives. They said their aim was to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy.
But some opposition figures and activists, both inside Syria and abroad, dismissed the meeting of some 200 critics as a ploy by the government to bestow legitimacy on Assad by giving the impression that he is freely allowing space for dissent, rather than cracking down.
The opposition says some 1,400 people have been killed — most of them unarmed protesters — during the government crackdown on months of street protests.
"This meeting will be exploited as a cover up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that is taking place on daily basis," said opposition figure Walid al-Bunni, who is staying away from the conference.
Al-Bunni told The Associated Press that he was not invited to the conference because authorities had "vetoed" some names.
"We would have been happier if the organizers of the conference were free to invite whomever they wanted ... as it is, this is not an opposition conference," he told The Associated Press from Damascus.
An activists' group called the Coordination Union of the Syrian Revolt also denounced the conference, calling it a "cheap ploy" that the government wants to exploit.
Among the participants was Michel Kilo, one of Syria's most prominent writers and pro-democracy activists, who spent years as a political prisoner. Another participant, writer and activist Louay Hussein, said Syrian authorities were informed of the meeting and had not blocked it. There would be no government representation, he said.
Whether the meeting might produce partners for President Assad's proposed "national dialogue" remains to be seen.
The regime says security forces have been the victims of "armed thugs" and foreign conspirators who it says are behind the unrest. Syria's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Riad Haddad, said Sunday that 300 soldiers and 47 police officers have been killed.