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Saudi Arabia to host Syria opposition meeting

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia will host a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh from Dec. 8-10 aimed at choosing representatives for future international talks on Syria, the official Saudi Press Agency said on Sunday.

RIYADH - Saudi Arabia will host a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh from Dec. 8-10 aimed at choosing representatives for future international talks on Syria, the official Saudi Press Agency said on Sunday.

The Saudi conference marks an attempt to bring together disparate groups whose disunity has long been an obstacle to reaching a peaceful solution to the nearly five-year conflict.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent an invitation to all the moderate portions of the Syrian opposition of different types and trends, and from its ethnic, sectarian and political spectrum inside and outside Syria," SPA reported, citing an official source at the foreign ministry.

Saudi Arabia is a strong supporter of opposition groups seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose future has been a sticking point in attempts at a peace agreement.

The conference will not include Islamic State, the jihadist group that has taken over swathes of eastern Syria and northwest Iraq and declared them as part of a cross-border caliphate. The United States and its allies are waging air strikes against the group in both countries.

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Many of the Syrian opposition groups are fighting IS at the same time as Assad. The al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, listed as a terrorist group by the United States and United Nations, will not be part of the conference either.

The rebel group, Islam Army, and two other groups confirmed they had received invitations to attend the Riyadh meeting though Islam Army did not say whether it would go.

Members of the exiled political opposition say the meeting will bring together at least 65 representatives of political and armed groups.

Saudi rival Iran has criticized the opposition conference, saying it would cause the failure of international talks. Tehran said on Sunday Assad's fate should only be decided by the Syrian people.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the next round of international talks on the Syrian crisis would take place in New York this month.

Last month, Russia, the United States and powers from Europe and the Middle East met in Vienna and outlined a plan for a political process in Syria leading to elections within two years.

Monzer Akbik, a member of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, said a delegation of 20 SNC members had been invited to the Riyadh gathering. The SNC is the main Western-backed political opposition, although it has only tenuous links with rebels on the ground and is seen as out of touch with the general population.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall in Riyadh, John Davison, Tom Perry and Sylvia Westall in Beirut, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, editing by Richard Balmforth)

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