Russia opposes calls for Assad to quit: ministry

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Russia opposes Western calls for Syria's president to quit and believes that his regime needs to be given more time to deliver on his promises of reform, the foreign ministry said on Friday.

"We do not share the United States and the European Union's point of view regarding President [Bashar] al-Assad and will continue to pursue our consistent and principled stance on Syria," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Assad needs to be given "sufficient time to implement the declared large-scale programme of social, political and economic reforms," the foreign ministry said.

The call came a day after US President Barack Obama and other major leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Assad to quit.

Obama also slapped harsh new sanctions on Syria, freezing state assets and blacklisting the oil and gas sector, in an escalation of pressure aimed at halting a bloody crackdown on protests that has claimed more than 2,000 lives.

Damascus is one of Russia's strongest allies in the Middle East, with ties dating back to the Soviet era, and Russia has in the past months repeatedly resisted Western pressure to punish Syria for the crackdown.

Moscow said earlier this week that in the absence of formal sanctions it would continue its arms sales to Syria.

The Russian foreign ministry said the announcement of an amnesty for political prisoners, the lifting of decades-old emergency rule and a plan to hold parliamentary elections by the year's end were among the government's moves aimed at reform.

Earlier in the day the Interfax news agency cited a foreign ministry source as saying that Assad's pledge to halt the crackdown on protesters was the most important signal yet of his willingness to pursue change.

Earlier this week Assad, speaking to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, announced that his security forces had ended their deadly crackdown on dissent.

"This is a very important step forward, and it speaks to the intention of Assad and the Syrian authorities to move along the path of reforms," the Russian foreign ministry source was quoted as saying.

A group of Russian politicians, experts and journalists was planning on Saturday to travel to Damascus on a reconnaissance mission, one of the informal delegation's members told AFP, saying media reports out of the country were incomplete.

Russian senator Aslambek Aslakhanov added the delegation would seek to meet both Assad and the opposition.

"Subject to agreement with the Russian foreign ministry, a group of Russian politicians and members of the Federation Council will fly out to Syria in the coming days to see on the ground what is going in the country," Interfax quoted Aslakhanov as saying.

"Our task is to hold meetings with representatives of the acting authorities, including the opposition," he was quoted as saying.

"We are planning to meet with President Bashar al-Assad whom I know well," Aslakhanov, a member of the international committee of the Federation Council, the parliament's upper house, told Interfax.

In May 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev became the first ever Russian or Soviet head of state to travel to Damascus where he promised Assad help in developing Syria's oil and gas infrastructure and voiced readiness to build a nuclear power station there.

© 2011 AFP

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