Russia urges Syria, Annan to step up peace effort
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia urged the Syrian government on Tuesday to act "more decisively" to implement international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan but said the opposition must also comply and called on other nations to use their influence to promote a ceasefire.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after talks with his Syrian counterpart, balanced a message of pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government with pointed words for his foes and for Western and Arab states.
"We told our Syrian colleagues ... we think their actions could be more active, more decisive in regard to the fulfillment of the points of the plan," Lavrov told reporters at a joint briefing with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.
"We spoke very frankly about this," said Lavrov, whose country has shielded Assad during more than a year of bloodshed and is under pressure to push him into compliance with Annan's plan for a government withdrawal to start on Tuesday and a ceasefire on April 12.
Moualem said Damascus had already pulled back some of its troops from cities and that Syria wanted a say in the composition of an international team to observe implementation of a ceasefire. The Russian Foreign ministry said Moualem told Lavrov some forces had been withdrawn from Homs.
"We are insistently demanding from our Syrian colleagues the strict fulfillment of their commitments," Lavrov said.
However, he added, "it is clear that success is possible only if the rest of the members of the international community who have influence on the Syrian sides ... approach this task with the same sense of responsibility."
Moscow "cannot ignore the well-known fact that Annan's proposals still have not been accepted by several if not the majority of opposition groups, including the ... Syrian National Council," he said.
Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria for the bloodshed but has sought to distance itself from Assad lately in a sign it wants to improve its image and retain influence if he leaves power.
In a telephone conversation with Annan after the talks with Moualem, Lavrov urged the U.N.-Arab League envoy to step up efforts to ensure Syrian opposition groups adhere to his ceasefire plan, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Lavrov "put special emphasis on the fact that the Syrian opposition and countries supporting it must also take urgent measures aimed at providing for a stable ceasefire, calling on Annan to increase work with them in that direction," it said.
DAMASCUS DEMANDS GUARANTEES
Moualem said Damascus wanted guarantees from Annan that armed groups attacking its troops would commit to a ceasefire.
"We will not ask the terrorist groups, which are killing, kidnapping and destroying infrastructure, for guarantees. We want Annan to give us these guarantees," he said, adding that an end of violence "must be simultaneous with the arrival of the international observers".
He also said Annan told him in a recent telephone call that a ceasefire would be followed by disarming of the rebels.
Lavrov challenged Western and Arab states, which have pledged support for opposition groups and called for Assad's exit.
"It would be better for the United States and other countries with direct access to various Syrian opposition groups not to point at Russia and China, but to set their levers in motion to ... force everybody to stop shooting at one another."
"We want once again today to call on all opposition (groups) and all states that have influence on the political and especially the armed opposition to use the influence with the aim of an immediate ceasefire by all sides."
Lavrov said Moualem told him the government had begun implementing requirements regarding "the use of artillery and heavy weapons" in Syrian cities.
Lavrov said Russia had agreed to a request from the United Nations to contribute observers.
Syria has given post-Soviet Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buying billions of dollars' worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Alissa de Carbonnel; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)