Russia calls on Syria, rebels to hold daily truces

MOSCOW Mon Mar 19, 2012 4:18pm EDT

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his foes on Monday to agree to daily humanitarian truces, backing an initiative from the International Committee of the Red Cross to treat the wounded in the violence-torn country.

Russia is one of Syria's main remaining international allies but it is unclear how much influence Moscow can wield over Damascus more than a year into a bloody uprising against Assad.

Russia's foreign ministry called on both Damascus and the armed opposition to agree "without delay to daily humanitarian pauses" after ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.

Moscow also called for the ICRC to have access to "those detained in Syria for their participation in protests".

On February 21, the ICRC, the only international agency to deploy aid workers in Syria, proposed a daily humanitarian ceasefire of two hours to allow time to evacuate the wounded and deliver food, medicine and other vital supplies.

Kellenberger said he told Lavrov on Monday the situation had grown more "urgent" and that a likely deterioration made the need for the daily ceasefires all the more important.

"It cannot be that when you have the most intense fighting you do not have access to evacuate the wounded," Kellenberger told Reuters in an interview.

"We also want to do protection activities, and by that I mean protection of medical missions, and it means access to detainees so that we can check their conditions and treat them."

Kellenberger told Reuters Lavrov had "clearly agreed to and was supportive of" the ceasefire idea.

The ICRC chief said it was not clear what channels Russia would use to exert pressure on Assad.

CONCRETE RESULTS

For the daily ceasefire to work, Kellenberger said: "I need unambiguous commitment from all those concerned. And this I do not have. I mean from the government side but also from the armed opposition."

The government "is in favor in principle, but you know how it is with principles, so I wouldn't consider it an unambiguous commitment."

Among the opposition, Kellenberger said he had received a positive response from the Free Syrian Army, but had not got the same support from the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group abroad.

The ICRC's meeting with Lavrov was held "in the framework of its contacts with all those who could have a positive influence on its action in Syria," ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan told Reuters in Geneva.

"We hope to see concrete results from such contacts on the ground in coming days or weeks," he said.

Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. Security Council condemnation by vetoing two Western-backed draft resolutions along with China.

Russia has continued delivering arms to Syria, whose ties with Moscow date back to the Soviet era, and has warned Western and Arab nations against military or political interference, while expressing its support for international humanitarian aid efforts.

In a rare show of unity with Western powers, Russia and China joined other U.N. Security Council members on March 1 in expressing "deep disappointment" at Syria's failure to allow U.N. humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos to visit the country, saying she should be let in immediately.

Amos has since been allowed to enter Syria, and has called for unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

Taking an unusually firm tone in remarks published on Saturday, Lavrov urged Syria to support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peacemaking efforts "without delay" and said Moscow disagreed with many of the decisions Assad's government has taken.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States was heartened by Russia's public support for the ICRC ceasefire proposal.

(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Andrew Heavens)

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