Russia defends Assad against Western pressure
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday defended the Syrian regime against sanctions for its crackdown on protesters and warned British Prime Minister David Cameron of the dangers of such a move.
Cameron met Medvedev for talks focusing on Syria and bilateral disputes as global frustration mounted with Russia's continued support of its ally despite President Bashar al-Assad's months-long repression of nationwide protests.
A visiting aide to Assad said 1,400 people -- half of them Syrian security and army forces -- had died in violence since the demonstrations erupted in mid-March and rejected an estimate of 2,600 deaths from UN human rights chief Navi Pillay.
Nations such as France have accused Assad's regime of committing crimes against humanity and the foreign ministry in Paris said Monday the UN Security Council's inability to approve a resolution on Syria was "a scandal".
Medvedev insisted that Russia was ready to put more pressure on Assad and argued that his differences with the West were "not dramatic".
But he stressed that any punitive actions must be applied equally to both sides because the opposition was continuing to reject calls to engage Assad in direct talks.
"This resolution must be strict, but it must not lead to the automatic application of sanctions," Medvedev said in reference to action proposed by Western powers.
Russia has blocked previous attempts by the world governing body to sanction Assad's regime and is promoting a separate draft resolution that simply calls on both sides to open negotiations.
Medvedev last week also called some of those protesting "terrorists" and refused to agree with Western states that no longer recognise Assad's legitimacy.
"Syria is already facing a large number of sanctions imposed by both the European Union and the United States, and additional pressure is absolutely unnecessary at this time," Medvedev said.
Cameron for his part acknowledged that he and Medvedev had essentially failed to bridge their gap on the dispute.
"There is a difference of perspective between Russia and Britain on this issue," Cameron said. "Clearly, Britain would like to go further. We do not see a future for Assad."
Cameron also acknowledged that a UN resolution may have to be abandoned in favour of a "clear statement about what is happening in Syria."
Britain and France have been leading the diplomatic offensive against Assad as they did on Libya, and Paris issued another barb at what it called some nations' indifference to the bloodshed in Syria.
"How long will the international community remain blind and dumb in the face of this endless sequence of crimes? That's the question we're asking today," said French foreign ministry spokeswoman Bernard Valero.
Cameron's arrival in Moscow coincided with that of Assad's media adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and followed a separate round of talks between a top Russian politician and Syrian opposition activists.
Shaaban said after talks with the upper house of parliament's foreign affairs chief Mikhail Margelov that Syria favoured the cautious reform process seen in Russia since the Soviet Union's collapse.
"In the past 20 years, Russia has undergone various processes that led to structural changes," she said.
"We want things in Syria to develop the way they did in Russia, in a bloodless manner."
Margelov for his part announced that he had received Assad's approval to send a group of Russian senators to Damascus and other Syrian cities to independently report on the situation on the ground.
On Friday, thousands of protesters for the first time called for international protection against repression.
But SANA quoted Assad as saying that there was a need "to not get caught in campaigns of disinformation against Syria."
The United States Sunday condemned the killing of Syrian rights activist Ghiyath Matar, 26, said by New York-based Human Rights Watch to have been a key player in organising the protests against Assad's regime.
Arrested on September 6, he died in detention after being tortured, the group added citing activists, who said he had bruises on his chest and signs of facial injuries.
"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the killing of Syrian human rights activist Ghiyath Matar while in the custody of Syrian security forces," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"His brave commitment to confronting the regime's despicable violence with peaceful protest serves as an example for the Syrian people and for all those who suffer under the yoke of oppression," she added in a statement.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP in Nicosia that another prominent rights campaigner, Najati Tayara, 66, was in a "very bad" condition after having been severely beaten at a Homs prison in central Syria.
According to the Observatory, security forces have arrested "more than 70,000 people" and "15,000 of them are still in detention."
Meanwhile, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council issued a statement urging Syria to immediately stop its "killing machine" against anti-regime protesters.
The group of oil-rich Arab monarchies also urged "the immediate implementation of serious reforms that meet the aspirations of the Syrian" people.
© 2011 AFP