The conflict in Syria killed 76,021 people in 2014, just under half of them civilians, a group monitoring the war has said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday 33,278 civilians were killed last year in the conflict, which started with protests in 2011 and has spiralled into a civil war.

The majority of the deaths were combatants, including nearly 32,747 anti-government fighters and 22,627 government soldiers and militiamen, it said.

The United Nations says around 200,000 people have been killed since 2011.

Syria: The wounds of war

No group enjoys significant momentum going into 2015 and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last month he expected the conflict to be long and difficult.

Assad visited a district on the outskirts of Damascus and thanked soldiers fighting "in the face of terrorism", his office said on Twitter late on Wednesday, posting pictures of the rare trip.

Assad, who is commander in chief, is not frequently pictured in public, though he has visited troops in the past, according to state media.

The presidential website said the latest visit was to Jobar, northeast of Damascus.

"If there was an area of joy which remained in Syria, it is thanks to the victories that you achieved in the face of terrorism," Assad told troops, according to the Twitter account.

State news agency SANA said he "wished a speedy recovery to the wounded" and praised their sacrifices.

Peace talks

In another development, Russia invited 28 Syrian opposition figures to Moscow for talks later this month, an opposition source told the AFP news agency, in preparation for a dialogue with the regime.

They include the head of the key Syrian National Coalition opposition grouping, Hadi al-Bahra, as well as two former Coalition chiefs, Moaz al-Khatib and Abdel Basset Sida.

The list also includes members of the tolerated domestic opposition, including Hassan Abdel Aazim, Aref Dailia Fateh Jamous and Qadri Jamil, a former deputy prime minister who was sacked in 2013 but has good ties with Russia.

Two successive rounds of UN-brokered talks between the regime and opposition have failed to achieve agreement.

Source: Agencies