Russia expects Moscow talks over Syria crisis this month

MOSCOW Wed Feb 13, 2013 3:19pm EST

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria's foreign minister is due for talks in Moscow later this month and Russia also hopes Syria's main opposition leader will visit soon in the search for a breakthrough in the bloody civil war, Russia's deputy foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Moscow has been one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad staunchest supporters throughout the revolt against him, blocking three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have increased pressure on Damascus to end the violence which has seen nearly 70,000 people killed.

"We want to have consultations in Moscow with Syria's Foreign Minister," said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, according to news agency Interfax, adding the visit by Syria's Walid al-Moualem was expected in late February.

Russia has dismissed Western criticism that it has been shielding Assad in nearly two years of conflict and said Syrians themselves should decide their fate.

Moscow has also said Assad's departure should not be a precondition for talks between Damascus and the opposition.

Bogdanov also said Moscow was keen Moaz Alkhatib, leader of the main opposition group, Syrian National Coalition, would take up an invitation to attend discussions in Russia.

Alkhatib met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich on February 2 after the opposition leader expressed willingness to talk to representatives of the Assad regime.

"In Munich, Minister Lavrov invited him to visit Moscow. He expressed interest and readiness to use this proposal," Bogdanov said in Guinea's capital Conakry, where he is accompanying Lavrov on a visit.

"We would want this to happen the sooner, the better."

Bogdanov added there was no talk now of holding three-party talks in Moscow or bilateral talks between representatives of rival sides in Syria.

However, any understanding Russia might reach with Assad's foes could help overcome the two sides' refusal to negotiate.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Michael Holden)

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