Russia rejects Assad exit as precondition for Syria deal
By Steve Gutterman and Oliver Holmes
MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia voiced support on Saturday for international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a deal to end the country's conflict.
Some 60,000 Syrians have been killed during the 21-month-old revolt and world powers are divided over how to stop the escalating bloodshed. Government aircraft bombed outer districts of Damascus on Saturday after being grounded for a week by stormy weather, opposition activists in the capital said.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday in Geneva with the United States and Brahimi reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.
Brahimi said the issue of Assad, who the United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist must step down to end the civil war, appeared to be a sticking point.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said: "As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria's future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development."
Russia has been Assad's most powerful international backer, joining with China to block three Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power. Assad can also rely on regional powerhouse Iran.
Russia called for "a political transition process" based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.
Brahimi, who is trying to build on that agreement, has met three times with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus. Continued...