Russia rejects Assad exit as precondition for Syria deal
* Russia signals Assad's exit cannot be precondition
* Comments on meeting with United States and envoy
* Supports envoy labelled biased by Syrian government
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Russia voiced support on Saturday for international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a deal to end the country's conflict.
A Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday with the United States and Brahimi, whom the Syrian government has labelled "flagrantly biased", reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, where more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
At the meeting in Geneva with Brahimi and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov "expressed unfailing support for Brahimi's mission as the U.N.-Arab League special envoy on Syria," it said.
The issue of Assad, whom the United States, European powers and Gulf-led Arab states insist must step down to end what has escalated into a civil war, appeared to be a sticking point at the meeting.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said: "As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria's future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development."
Russia has been Assad's most powerful international backer during the nearly 22-month-old conflict, joining with China to block three Western- and Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power.
In Geneva, Russia called for "a political transition process" based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.
Brahimi, who is trying to build on the agreement reached in Geneva on June 30, has met three times with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus.
Russia and the United States disagreed over what the June agreement meant for Assad, with Washington saying it sent a clear signal he must go and Russia contending it did not.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said there had been some progress toward a common view at Friday's meeting but did not provide details.
Moscow says it is not propping up Assad and, as rebels gain ground in the war, has given indications it is preparing for his possible exit. But it continues to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.
Analysts say President Vladimir Putin wants to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the U.N. Security Council to bring down governments it opposes.
Bogdanov met Syrian Christian opposition campaigner Michel Kilo in Geneva in efforts to pursue close contacts with both Assad's government and opponents, the Foreign Ministry said.
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