France to push Russia on Syria sanctions, expels envoy

PARIS Tue May 29, 2012 1:40pm EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said he would try to convince Russia to back U.N. Security Council sanctions against Syria after he stepped up pressure on Damascus by announcing the expulsion of its ambassador on Tuesday.

Hollande, who will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Friday, said last week's killing of more than 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla, near Hama, meant it was now time for stronger measures against Damascus.

"We will see what we can do with Putin so that he can put pressure on the Assad regime and also take part in a Security Council vote," Hollande told reporters after visiting a military hospital.

"We know that Russia and China have prevented the sanctions vote which could be even more decisive in applying pressure on the regime," he added.

The crisis in Syria is one of first diplomatic tests for Hollande after predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy's high-profile firefighting in last year's crises in Libya and the Ivory Coast.

Sarkozy's government called repeatedly for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and urged a Chapter 7 U.N. resolution that could include the use of military force unless Damascus complied with a U.N-Arab league peace plan.

Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed Syria on Monday, condemning the Houla killings. They agreed to work together to raise pressure on Damascus.

On Tuesday, France expelled the Syrian ambassador in Paris joining the United States and other Western countries in expelling top Syrian diplomats across the world. Lamia Chakkour, who represented Syria in both France and Switzerland, was also declared persona non-grata in Zurich on Tuesday.

"We are putting pressure on Syria given what its leader is doing to crush his people. Sadly, we saw a most terrible demonstration of this (in Houla) with children losing their lives in atrocious conditions," Hollande said. "We had to react."

Western and Arab states have been struggling to craft a more muscular international response to the crisis amid opposition from Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, who have already vetoed two resolutions.

While Hollande said he still supported Annan's plan, he said France would stage by early July a meeting in Paris of the Friends of Syria - a coalition of countries that want Assad's rule to end.

The meeting aims to propose concrete solutions to the Syria crisis, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.

Speaking in daily newspaper Le Monde, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius ruled out a ground intervention but, when asked by reporters if an aerial intervention was a possibility, he declined to comment.

Sarkozy spearheaded a Franco-British move in NATO to back the revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In the U.N.-mandated military operation to protect civilians, NATO conducted air strikes, enforcing a no-fly zone and maintaining an arms embargo with naval patrols.

(Reporting By John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Heavens)

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