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DAMASCUS: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday ahead of a Moscow-backed conference on repatriation that he is adamant on the return of refugees. Speaking in a video call broadcast by the Syrian presidency's Facebook page ahead of the two-day conference that opens Wednesday in Damascus, Assad called their return a priority for his government.

"For us, as a government, it is a number one priority in the coming stage," especially since large parts of Syria had been recaptured by Damascus and battles have subsided, he told Putin. "The Syrian government is not just ready, but also eager, for the results of the conference so that we can see the largest number of refugees return in the coming few months."

Assad's forces control more than 70 percent of Syria, while remaining areas are held by US-backed Kurdish forces as well as rebels and jihadists opposed to the Damascus government.

But Putin said violence in Syria had diminished thanks to the "joint efforts" of Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel backer Turkey in negotiations to end the war. "Now peace and calm have returned to most of Syria, there is a good possibility of ensuring a massive return of refugees," a Kremlin statement quoted him as saying.