West increasingly wary of Assad ouster by Islamists: Russia

MOSCOW Fri Dec 20, 2013 9:30am EST

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov makes a speech to the upper house of parliament in Moscow December 18, 2013. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov makes a speech to the upper house of parliament in Moscow December 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Western diplomats are increasingly saying that President Bashar al-Assad keeping power is a better option for Syria than his overthrow by Islamist militants, Russia's foreign minister was quoted as saying on Friday.

"Not only in private meetings but also in public comments, the idea is occurring to some Western colleagues that...Assad remaining in office is less of a threat for Syria than a takeover of the country by terrorists," Sergei Lavrov told RIA news agency in an interview published on Friday.

Russia has been Assad's most important supporter during Syria's civil war, blocking Western-backed efforts to condemn Assad at the U.N. Security Council or to push him out of power.

Moscow says it is not trying to prop up Assad but that his departure cannot be a precondition for peace moves.

Lavrov said the gains made by Islamist rebels on the Syrian battlefield is pushing a shift in the Western stance on Assad.

He describing the situation in Syria as one in which "jihadist and terrorists are rapidly increasing their influence in Syria, seizing territory and immediately establishing Sharia (Islamic) law there."

Moscow also expressed concern in a separate statement on Friday over fighting near a chemical weapons stockpile in Syria and accused Islamist-led rebel forces of trying to disrupt international efforts to dispose of the poisonous arms.

"In Moscow, we are deeply concerned by these reports," the foreign ministry said in the statement.

More than 100,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes in Syria's civil war, which is now in its third year.

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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