MOSCOW Exiled Syrian opposition figures urged Russia on Tuesday to persuade Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to resign, warning that Moscow risked being left behind by history unless it withdrew its support for the leader.
Senior Russian officials, who have thwarted Western attempts to condemn Assad for crushing protests against his rule, held a meeting with some of Assad's most vociferous critics in Moscow.
The meeting was seen as a possible sign the Kremlin might be hedging its bets and trying to ensure its clout in the Middle Eastern country if Assad is toppled.
Russia's foreign ministry said the Syrian opposition representatives came at the invitation of a regional cooperation society and that no official meetings were planned.
Rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed during a three-month revolt against the Assad family's 41-year rule, partly inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.
Syrian authorities say more than 250 soldiers and police have died in clashes they say were provoked by militant groups.
"Russia should help Syria to reach freedom and democracy by putting more pressure on the Syrian President to resign," Mulhem Droubi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told journalists.
"The president should resign if he has any feeling for Syrian people," he said after talks with the Kremlin's special envoy for Africa, Mikhail Margelov.
Russia has urged Assad to move faster on promised reforms, but has opposed Western efforts to condemn his crackdown in the U.N. Security Council and echoed his claims that extremists are to blame for some of the violence.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who most diplomats believe is Russia's paramount leader, tried to play down Moscow's ties with Syria last week, saying that Russia had no special relationship with Damascus.
Putin said any leader of a nation plagued by unrest should face international pressure to stop the bloodshed.
"Russia has only one friend - the Syrian people," Margelov, told reporters after the talks.
About 50 Assad supporters held a demonstration outside a news conference given by the Syrian opposition on Tuesday.
Margelov, appointed by Medvedev to mediate in North Africa and the Middle East, said Russia wanted political dialogue to prevent Syria from following the path of Libya, which has descended into civil war.
The Syrian activists, based in Russia and other countries, said Russia had to correct its policy toward Assad.
"Russia should be on the right side of history, otherwise it will be much harder for it to build relations (with Syria) in the future," Russia's Kommersant newspaper quoted delegation leader Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights, as saying.
"By opposing a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, Russia is supporting a criminal regime," he said.
Syria's government has announced it will invite opposition figures to July 10 talks to set the framework for a dialogue promised by Assad, and that constitutional changes would be on the agenda.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman, editing by Andrew Heavens)