Russia tells West: We won’t urge Assad to step down

RUSSIA has reaffirmed its support for the beleaguered Syrian president Bashar al-Assad by releasing a statement yesterday saying it would “absolutely not” tell him to stand down.

In published comments, the Kremlin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, indicated that it ­rejected calls for Mr Assad to step aside in order to end a civil war and facilitate a peaceful ­political transition.

Mr Lavrov – who was visiting Venezuela for the funeral of populist socialist leader Hugo Chavez – said in his statement that Mr Assad was “not bluffing” about his determination to stay in power, and added that Russia was “not in the regime-change game” – an open dig at western powers accused of invading Iraq in order to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein.

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He added: “We are against ­interference in domestic conflicts. And this is our position, which should be of no surprise to anyone.”

The remarks restated Moscow’s position that Mr Assad’s exit must not be a precondition for a negotiated solution to the two-year-old conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.

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His remarks came as negotiations to free 21 United Nations’ peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels dragged into a third day.

The Philippine government continued its efforts to win the release of the peacekeepers, all Filipinos, who were seized by Syrian rebels on Wednesday.

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Government officials initially said they expected the UN troops to be freed yesterday, but it was unclear what the rebel ­demands were for their release.

The conflict in Syria has been deadlocked for months, with neither side able to gain the upper hand, although the rebels have scored a series of strategic victories in recent weeks, seizing a provincial capital in the northeast, capturing Syria’s largest dam and over-running a number of smaller military bases.

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Mr Lavrov said the Syrian leader was digging in and was “not going to leave.”

“We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing,” Mr Lavrov said.

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Earlier this week, Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK would provide armoured vehicles and other equipment to the rebels, while stopping short of arming them. The West has balked at sending weapons, fearing they could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks.

In India, Mr Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban said the British decision would only prolong the fighting. She said most of the rebels are linked to the al-Qaeda terror network and conservative Islamic groups.

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“Britain should not think that terror activities by such groups in Syria, will not one day go back to haunt Europe or Britain,” said Ms Shaaban, who is in India for talks with Indian leaders to rally support for Mr Assad.

Elsewhere yesterday, rebels attacked regime forces in the village of Abdeen, south of Jamlah, setting off heavy clashes, activists said. Regime helicopters bombed the area, the group said.

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Rebels apparently fear the regime will retake the area if the peacekeepers are released, raising the possibility of a prolonged stand-off. Philippine ­defense minister Voltaire Gazmin said president Benigno Aquino III has ordered a review of its peacekeeping missions.

The World Food Programme also said yesterday that it aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians by next month. Need has risen sharply as growing numbers of Syrians are displaced by the civil war and as the country’s economy disintegrates in the face of the continuing chaos.