Moscow denies Russian diplomat said Assad ready to step down

MOSCOW Tue Aug 14, 2012 7:11am EDT

MOSCOW Aug 14 (Reuters) - The Russian Foreign Ministry denied a Saudi Arabian newspaper report on Tuesday that cited Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was ready to step down, state-run news agency RIA reported.

"Mikhail Bogdanov gave no interview to the Saudi newspaper al-Watan," RIA cited an unnamed source in the Foreign Ministry's press department as saying.

It said Bogdanov had not given an interview to the paper by phone or in person.

Watan, which said it spoke to Bogdanov in a phone interview, reported him as saying that Assad had agreed to step down, but it gave no further details.

It also reported that Bogdanov had said Assad's brother Maher al-Assad lost his legs during a bombing in Damascus that killed senior security officials and he was "struggling for survival".

The newspaper did not say when the interview took place and the only direct quotes it attributed to Bogdanov were on the subject of Russia's position on the crisis.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment to Reuters, asking for a written request.

Russia has shielded Assad from pressure by joining China in blocking three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to end 17 months of bloodshed, including one last month that would have threatened Syria's government with sanctions.

Russia says it is not propping up Assad and would accept his exit from power in a political transition decided by the Syrian people, but that his departure must not be a precondition and he must not be pushed out by external forces, including the Security Council.

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