Russia denies it endorsed call for Assad to leave
Russia on Thursday said it would not endorse a call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up power and criticized as inappropriate U.S. comments that it had agreed to plans for a new national unity government in Syria that could include the opposition.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that major powers meeting Saturday in Geneva for talks on Syria must concentrate on convincing opposition groups to soften their demands. He also denied a claim by a senior U.S. official that Russia was among the backers of a plan for a new government to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and eventual elections.
"We are not supporting and will not support any external meddling," he said. "External players must not dictate ... to Syrians, but, first of all, must commit to influencing all the sides in Syria to stop the violence."
Diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia - Syria's most important ally, protector and supplier of arms - to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. But the country- one of the five permanent Security Council members along with Britain, China, France and the U.S. - has warned it would firmly oppose any document urging Assad to step down.
Moscow also has rejected efforts by outside forces to end the country's bloody conflict or any plan to force regime change in Damascus, insisting that any plans for the future rest entirely with Syria.
It was not clear, however, that Moscow has rejected Annan's plan altogether or has simply not agreed to its final form yet.
"First of all, no agreed-upon projects exist, the work on the possible final document is going on, including a meeting of experts in Geneva," Lavrov told reporters. "I think that the fact that certain formulas, certain ideas proposed for the possible final document by certain countries are leaked to the media manifests an improper approach to diplomacy."
A senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss diplomatic negotiations, had said international envoy Kofi Annan assured the United States that world powers gathering in Geneva had endorsed the plan and that Russia was among its backers.
Lavrov said that diplomatic efforts should focus on urging the opposition groups to "refuse from their uncompromising approaches and, in accordance with the Kofi Annan plan, sit down for negotiations with the government."
Lavrov also criticized the exclusion of major regional player Iran from Saturday's high-level meeting of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council in Geneva.
"Iran is undoubtedly a powerful player in the whole situation," Lavrov said. "Leaving it out of the loop of the Geneva meeting is a mistake."
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