MOSCOW (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday some Russians were swallowing Muammar Gaddafi’s “lies” about civilian casualties in Libya, while his Russian counterpart called for an immediate ceasefire.
Gates told Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov the fighting should decrease in the coming days and assured Moscow the coalition conducting air strikes was doing its best to avoid civilian casualties.
The violence in Libya overshadowed a trip to Russia by Gates, whose talks in Moscow came a day after a public spat between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over the U.N. vote that authorized military action.
Russia abstained in the Security Council vote last week, allowing armed intervention by a Western coalition, but has expressed concern about civilians. Putin lambasted the resolution on Monday and said there were civilian casualties.
Libya “is experiencing real hostilities which result in damage to civilian facilities, civilians have died. This should not have been allowed to happen and we informed our U.S. counterparts of our opposition,” Serdyukov said.
Russia believes “that an immediate ceasefire and a dialogue between the belligerent parties is the surest path to the reliable security of civilians,” he said.
Gates told Serdyukov: “The coalition is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and most of the targets are air defense targets isolated from populated areas.”
“I also told him that I thought the significant military fighting that has been going on should recede in the next few days,” Gates said at a joint briefing.
In blunter remarks later, he said Gaddafi was lying.
“We’ve been very careful about this and it’s almost as though some people here are taking at face value Gaddafi’s claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I am concerned are just outright lies,” Gates told reporters.
“I must say that I’m a little curious, frankly, about the tone. It’s perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Gaddafi.”
Gates will not meet Putin but was to meet Medvedev, who rebuked his mentor on Monday for comparing the West’s call for action in Libya to the crusades, the most public rift yet between Russia’s ruling tandem ahead of 2012 elections.
Putin, in some of his harshest criticism of the United States since President Barack Obama started a push for better ties, compared action on Libya to the Iraq invasion and said it showed Russia was right to spend billions on its military.
Putin said the U.N. Security Council resolution was flawed and it “resembles medieval calls for crusades.
Gates, speaking in St. Petersburg on Monday, told the Interfax news agency the mission was to establish a no-fly zone and “prevent a humanitarian disaster, to prevent Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.”
Gates, a former CIA director expected to retire later this year, told Serdyukov he wanted the “momentum” of warming ties between the Cold War foes to “continue to build today.”
The Defense chiefs discussed prospects for cooperation on missile Defense and the war in Afghanistan, as well as implementation of the New START nuclear arms limitation treaty.
A holdover from the Bush administration, Gates saw first hand the U.S.-Russia relationship deteriorate over Russia’s 2008 war against pro-western Georgia, and then improve under Obama.
Obama’s effort to “reset” ties was crowned with the arms pact which came into force last month, limiting each country to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 800 delivery systems by 2018.
Russia has outlined tough conditions for further cuts and warned of a new arms race if Moscow and the West cannot reach agreement on cooperation on a European missile shield.
Editing by Janet Lawrence