Russia to host Annan, condemns massacre
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday it would urge U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan to work more closely with the Syrian opposition at talks in Moscow next week, and called for an inquiry into a massacre in Syria.
The Foreign Ministry said the massacre, in which opposition sources said about 220 people had been killed, served the interests of people who wanted a sectarian conflict in Syria, but did not directly apportion blame.
Russia has repeatedly defended President Bashar al-Assad at the U.N. Security Council since the start of the uprising in Syria 16 months ago, but was urged by the Syrian opposition at talks in Moscow this week to do more to end the violence.
Annan's spokesman in Geneva said the envoy expected to meet President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, and the Russian ministry source told RIA news agency that Annan would discuss the crisis with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"To be honest, we do not see our partners being as ready (as Russia) to work with the opposition, and Kofi Annan is the main mediator of this process," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
"Unfortunately, so far we don't see any practical results from his and his team's contact with the opposition," he said.
It was not clear what message Russia wanted Annan to convey to the opposition, with which Moscow has failed to reach agreement on how to resolve the crisis, notably because the opposition insists Assad's departure must be a precondition of political dialogue in Syria.
The Syrian opposition leaders left Moscow this week saying Russia's policies were helping prolong the bloodshed and Moscow has said both sides in the conflict must work to end it.
The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement gave no direct indication of who it blamed for the massacre in a village in the rebellious Hama region of Syria.
"We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," it said.
Russia has sent what foreign diplomats call conflicting signals that could point to a shift, but as yet no big change, in its stance as it seeks to ensure it keeps a foothold in the pivotal Middle East country if its ally Assad goes.
Moscow said on Thursday it would not agree to a threat of sanctions to end the conflict in Syria as the U.N. Security Council began negotiations on a resolution to extend a monitoring mission in Syria.
Gatilov also reiterated Moscow's opposition to a Syria peacekeeping operation, proposed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who recommended the U.N. civilian staff in Syria should focus on a political solution and issues such as human rights.
"A peace enforcement operation is a forced measure. Any measures that could be taken without the government's consent are out of the question," Interfax quoted Gatilov as saying.
He added: "Any further deployment of armed forces or contingents must be agreed upon with the Syrian government. As far as I know, the Syrian government is not ready for it at this stage."
In a further sign of Russia's determination to keep a foothold in the region if Assad departs, military sources said Russian warships had left this week for Syria, where Moscow has a naval maintenance facility.
But Gatilov's call for Annan to work more with the Syrian opposition, and the increased contacts with Assad's opponents, suggested Russia may also be looking for ways to facilitate a political transition.
A Russian arms trade official was quoted this week as saying Moscow would deliver no more weapons to Assad while the fighting continued.