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Russia denies change of policy on Syria

  |   Dec. 14, 2012 at 3:03 PM
DAMASCUS, Syria, Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Russia has not changed its position on Syria and believes attempting to overthrow President Bashar Assad through force is fruitless, an official said Friday.

Alexander Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, responded to a statement by Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, ITAR-Tass reported. Nuland praised the Russian government Thursday for "finally waking up to reality."

"We were never sleeping," Lukashevich responded.

Lukashevich said Russia is not involved in talks with the United States or any other country about Syria's future. He urged Assad and the Syrian opposition to put down their arms and begin negotiations.

"We are convinced that the confrontation is only leading to a deadlock," he said.

Nuland urged Russia to join the United States and others in the international community in working for a smooth transition to democracy in Syria. Her comment that Russia had finally realized Assad's "days are numbered" was a response to remarks by Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's top envoy for Middle East affairs, to a Kremlin advisory group and oversight committee.

"We have to look squarely at the facts -- the trend is that the Syrian regime and government are losing more and more control and more and more territory," Bogdanov said in remarks reported by the non-governmental Russian news agency Interfax and state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.

"Unfortunately, it is impossible to rule out a victory of the Syrian opposition," he said.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, also denied a change of policy.

But he said, "We're not fans of the Assad regime and we understand that it can hardly survive, but we also understand that's a decision for the Syrian people to make."

Russia has long backed President Bashar Assad and frequently admonished the West for what it described as interference in Syria's internal affairs. Moscow helped shield Assad's regime from U.N. Security Council censure and sanctions.

The Kremlin's assessment was reinforced when NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels: "I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it is only a question of time."

Rasmussen said the reported use of Scud tactical ballistic missiles by the Assad regime showed "utter disregard" for Syrian lives.

Syria's Foreign Ministry denied Thursday using Scud missiles against rebels.

A bombing in the Damascus suburb of Qatana Thursday killed at least 16 people, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. The Assad regime blamed the bombing on rebels, the agency said, identifying them as "terrorists."

The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said the regime shelled two other Damascus suburbs. One shelling in Jdeidet Artouz al-Fadal killed at least 17 people and a shelling of a bakery in Hajar al-Aswad killed at least four.

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