A demonstrator carries a banner during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in IstanbulDemonstrators march through the streets after Friday prayers in the Hajar Al Asswad in Damascushttp://beta.news.yahoo.com/syria-activists-meet-call-change-avert-crisis-123229039.html

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian activists called on Monday for sweeping political changes that could end 41 years of Assad family rule in a rare meeting in Damascus allowed by the authorities under pressure from a three-month popular uprising.

“The solution to this crisis has to address its root causes. This regime must be toppled and replaced with a democratic system,” said leading Syrian writer Michel Kilo, who spent three years as a political prisoner.

The meeting at a Damascus hotel includes noted critics of President Bashar al-Assad who are respected in opposition circles, as well as some supporters of Assad.

Organizers said the gathering had approval from a senior aide to Assad, who has sent troops to crush protests across the country while promising dialogue in an effort to contain an uprising for political freedoms that has posed the gravest threat to his rule since he succeeded his father 11 years ago.

Other speakers in the conference, attended by 150 people in a Damascus hotel, adopted a softer tone but said demands of street protesters after decades of autocratic rule must be met.

Syrian writer Louay Hussein, who was also a political prisoner, said repression in the last four decades have undermined Syria as a whole while emphasizing that peaceful means must be found to meet popular demands.

Hussein said the meeting would try to explore “ending the state of dictatorship, and a peaceful and safe transition into a desired country, one of freedom, justice and equality.”

Monther Khaddam, an academic from the coastal city of Latakia, said a wider national dialogue is needed but that intellectuals were “behind street demands until the end.”

Organizers of Monday’s conference described it as a platform for independent figures searching for a way out of the violence

Main opposition figures had said the meeting could give political cover to Assad, with human rights groups saying that security forces have killed over 1,300 civilians and imprisoned 12,000 since the uprising began in southern Syria.

Economist Aref Dalila, a major figure behind the gathering, pulled out at the last minute, saying that he did not want to participate in a conference that could be used by the authorities while mass killing and arrests continue.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis)

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