U.S. urges Syria vote as Russia warns U.N. taking sides
MUNICH (Reuters) - Russia's foreign minister demanded on Saturday that a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria be amended to avoid giving the impression that the world body was taking sides in a civil war, but Washington still held out for 'yes' vote from Moscow.
Sergei Lavrov warned of a "scandal" if the Security Council voted on the current version on Saturday as planned. He met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Munich for what one U.S. official called very "vigorous" talks on Syria.
A State Department official said afterwards that Washington still hoped for "the strongest possible consensus" at the U.N. Reports from activists that 200 people were killed in shelling by government troops in the city of Homs added a new sense of urgency to the diplomatic negotiations.
"We are not saying that this resolution is hopeless," the Russian minister told policymakers and experts at the Munich Security Conference. However, it remained unclear whether the differences between Russia and other nations on the Security Council could be bridged.
Russia's main objection to the draft resolution is that it sets down measures to be taken against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but not against what Lavrov said were armed groups who were manipulating peaceful protesters.
"Unless you do it both ways, you are taking sides in a civil war," Lavrov told the conference, saying the current draft "does not suit us at all" and warning of "a scandal" if it goes to the vote, suggesting that Russia could veto it.
The Security Council draft resolution expresses "full support" for an Arab League plan that calls for Assad to cede power.
Western and Arab nations, who have pushed for Assad to give up power after an 11-month government crackdown that the United Nations says has led to more than 5,000 deaths, are struggling to overcome Russian resistance to Security Council action.
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Earlier drafts have already been modified in response to the concerns of Russia, which has relied on Assad for a foothold in the Middle East. Russia sells weapons to Assad, who has hosted a Russian naval maintenance facility on the Mediterranean - the only Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union.
Clinton tried to impress on her Russian colleague the need for urgent Security Council action given the violence on the ground, said a senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The secretary made clear that we feel, that the United States feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today," said the official, adding that the "action" now moved to the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Russian news agencies reported that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had instructed Lavrov and foreign intelligence service chief Mikhail Fradkov to travel to Syria on Tuesday to meet Assad.
The Russian minister said in Munich his government "supports the call of the Syrian people for change" but warned that the U.N. text ignored the fact that peaceful protesters were "more and more being used by armed groups to create trouble."
The resolution made "more specific demands" of the Assad government than of such groups and condemned the former more than the latter, said Lavrov. It left the door open to outside intervention rather than ensuring a home-grown Syrian solution and appeared to predetermine the results of any action, he said.
Questioned about Russia arms sales to the Assad government, Lavrov said his country did not sell Syria the kind of small arms that could be used in internal civil conflict, and that any weapons it sold Syria could not disturb the balance of military power in the Middle East, which was tipped towards Israel.
(Additional reporting by Steve Guttermann in Moscow and William MacLean in Munich; Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Rosalind Russell)