Islamic summit opens

Muslim leaders open Islamic summit with calls for Syrian dialogue.

Muslim leaders thrust Egypt Islamist president to centre stage at the Islamist summit. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - Leaders of Muslim nations called for a negotiated end to Syria's civil war at a summit in Cairo on Wednesday, thrusting Egypt's new Islamist president to centre stage amid turbulence at home.

On the summit sidelines, the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Iran gathered for talks on the Syria crisis. The Iranian foreign minister came out of the meeting expressing optimism about the prospects for a resolution.

The head of the Syrian opposition, in Cairo but not at the summit, told BBC Arabic that Iran was making the decisions in Damascus, and gave the Syrian government until Sunday to release women detainees or else his offer of talks would lapse.

The summit of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation opened on a day when the assassination of a leading Tunisian opposition politician highlighted the fragility of "Arab Spring" democratic revolutions in North Africa.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki cancelled his trip to the Cairo meeting after Shokri Belaid, a staunch secular opponent of the moderate Islamist government, was shot dead outside his home, triggering street protests.

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making an ice-breaking visit to Egypt, the first by an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the two-day meeting was focusing on how to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad counts Tehran as one of his last allies.

In a keynote address, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi called on "the ruling regime" in Damascus to learn the lessons of history and not put its interests above those of the nation, saying that rulers who did so were inevitably finished.

Mursi urged all OIC members to support the Syrian opposition's efforts to unite and bring about change.

Heavy fighting erupted in Damascus on Wednesday as rebels launched an offensive against Assad's forces, breaking a lull in the conflict, opposition activists said.

Ahmadinejad earlier told Egyptian journalists there could be no military solution and he was encouraged that the Syrian government and opposition were moving towards negotiations to end a conflict in which at least 60,000 people have died.

His foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Egypt's state news agency he believed the Syrian government was ready to negotiate with the opposition. "We are optimistic," he added after the meeting with the leaders of Turkey and Egypt.