MOSCOW Russia said on Tuesday that it was not ready to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and called Western criticism of its conduct in the U.N. Security Council "immoral."
The remarks, the latest display of Russian opposition to Western calls for greater pressure on Syria's government, came after the U.N. human rights chief issued a fresh call for the council to refer the situation to the court.
"We proceed from the position that only the U.N. Security Council can sanction the transfer of the Syrian dossier to the International Criminal Court," the state-run news agency Itar-Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying. "We do not see grounds for this at the present time."
Navi Pillay, the U.N. rights chief, reported to the Security Council that the death toll in more than nine months of unrest in Syria exceeded 5,000 people, including civilians, army defectors and those executed for refusing to shoot civilians.
The Syrian government has said more than 1,100 members of the army, police and security forces have been killed.
Gatilov said Russia shared other council nations' concerns about the continuing violence but "we do not agree with evaluations according to which responsibility for the violence ... lies exclusively upon the Syrian authorities."
Russia used a similar argument in October, when it joined China in using their veto power as permanent Security Council members to block passage of a Western-drafted resolution that would have condemned Syria's government for its crackdown.
Security Council nations including the United States and France have expressed frustration with opposition to sanctions and other pressure on Syria from Russia and China.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said on Monday that it was "scandalous that the council, because of opposition from some members and the indifference of others ... has not been able to act to exert pressure on the Syrian authorities."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back, saying that Western nations should also put pressure on militants he said shared the blame for the violence.
"If those who refuse to exert pressure on the armed extremist part of the opposition are at the same time accusing us of blocking the work of the Security Council, I would call that position, in the final analysis, immoral," he said.
Lavrov, speaking after a meeting with his Algerian counterpart, said Russia had been pressing Syria to allow Arab observers into the country under an Arab League peace plan.
"Our advice, which has been given to Damascus and which we affirm on a practically daily basis, is to sign this protocol and accept observers as soon as possible," Lavrov said.
He reiterated that the BRICS emerging market nations -- Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa -- were also ready to send observers if asked.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)