By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria's main opposition groups boycotted talks with the government on Sunday and said they will not negotiate till President Bashar al-Assad stops the violent suppression of protests and frees thousands of political prisoners.
Even many of the moderate intellectuals, independent parliamentarians and minor opposition figures who did attend the conference aimed at setting the framework for national dialogue were scathing in their criticism of the government crackdown.
Rights groups say more than 1,300 civilians have been killed and 12,000 people have been arrested since the start of demonstrations demanding more freedom began in March.
"How can I go to the conference when friends of mine are still in prison? People who should be with us in the conference are in prison," said prominent opposition figure Fayez Sara.
"They did not prepare the background for dialogue. The killings, crackdown and arrests did not stop so why should we go," said Sara, who was arrested during the uprising.
Authorities say more than 500 soldiers and police have been killed in clashes which they say were provoked by Islamist militant groups.
Assad has responded to the protests with a mixture of force and promises of reforms. He has sent troops and tanks into cities and towns to crush protests, but has also taken steps toward reform, including granting citizenship to some ethnic Kurds, lifting a draconian state of emergency, freeing hundreds of prisoners and calling for a national dialogue.
"At this time there is no alternative to dialogue. (The alternative) is bloodshed, economic bleeding and self destruction," Vice President Farouq al-Shara told more than 200 participants at the conference which was broadcast live on Syrian television.
"National dialogue should continue and on all levels ... in order to turn the page on the past and open a new page in the history of Syria," he said.
Some of those at the meeting called for an immediate abolition of Article Eight of the constitution which puts the Baath Party at the center of Syrian politics and society.
"The way out is by putting an end to the security state ... and to work for a civil and democratic country where there is political pluralism and media freedom and to end the one-party rule," Mohammad Habash, an independent member of parliament, told the meeting.
"Confronting protests with bullets is not acceptable at all," he said.
Syrian authorities question the motives of some of the opposition and believe they are seeking help from the West to topple Assad while most opposition groups question the seriousness of the authorities' call for dialogue.
Western governments have condemned Assad's violence against protesters, but their practical response has so far been limited to sanctions against top officials, far short of the military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Syria summoned the ambassadors of the United States and France on Sunday to object to their visit to the restive city of Hama without clearance from the authorities last week, the state news agency SANA said.
It quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying the visit of the U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and France's Ambassador Eric Chevallier to Hama was "clear evidence of the American and French intervention in Syria's internal affairs and confirms that there is external support for (protests)".
The U.S. State Department said Ford toured Hama to show solidarity with residents facing a security crackdown after weeks of escalating protests against Assad, but rejected Syria's accusations that he sought to incite protests.
The Baath Party has ruled Syria since it took power in a coup in 1963. Bashar's father, President Hafez al-Assad, ruled the country with for more than 30 years, crushing all opposition.
(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Jon Hemming)