BRUSSELS – Britain on Thursday welcomed the surprise declaration from Syria's top opposition leader that he would negotiate with President Bashar Assad's regime in an effort to end Syria's nearly two-year civil war.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said dialogue was desirable, but added that any transitional government could not include Assad himself. The U.N. says the civil war has killed more than 60,000 people.
"We want to see a political, a diplomatic solution in Syria," Hague said as he headed into a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. "We've always wanted to see, as we agreed in Geneva last year, a transitional government made up of members of the current regime and members of the opposition, based on mutual consent."
He said that agreement "means that Assad could not be part of such a transitional government."
The remarks Wednesday by Moaz al-Khatib marked a departure from the opposition line, which has categorically ruled out talking to the Assad regime.
Nevertheless, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said he was "very pessimistic" about the situation in Syria and foresaw a long civil war.
The 27 EU foreign ministers also adopted a statement encouraging ECOWAS, a group of West African countries, to accelerate its military deployment to Mali to fight Islamist militants, and offered logistical and financial help.
But the ministers said they were alarmed by reports of human rights violations and urged Malian authorities to investigate immediately and to cooperate with the International Criminal Court to hold perpetrators responsible.
In Mali, where French and African troops are wresting control of the north from Islamist radicals, the EU has already authorized a mission to train the Malian army, in the hope it will be able to maintain control of the territory after the international troops have left.
EU foreign ministers are expected to formally decide to launch the mission, which will involve 500 people, in February and the mission itself is expected to begin April 1.
Several ministers were very concerned about what they saw as a move away from democracy in Egypt, where the president, Mohammed Morsi, has imposed a 30-day state of emergency and a curfew on three Suez Canal provinces hit hardest by violent protests. The foreign ministers suggested that Egypt might receive less aid from the EU if the trend continued.
Also, the EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, said Thursday that she is confident negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will resume soon. Last week, her spokesman had suggested that Iran was delaying new nuclear talks with six world powers by not agreeing to a venue and setting new preconditions.
Many international officials fear Iran is developing nuclear weapons but Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only.
At a later press conference, Ashton noted the appearance of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the session and said the EU was determined to help Somalia move toward a lasting peace.