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March 19, 2012

Russia Prepared to Back Annan's Syria Plan

by James Brooke, Michael Lipin

Russia has offered conditional support for Western efforts to persuade the U.N. Security Council to approve a Syria peace plan drafted by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday Moscow believes the Security Council should support Annan's continuing efforts to achieve agreement between all Syrians engaged in the country's year-long unrest.

But Lavrov said any Council statement or resolution on the crisis must not impose an ultimatum on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime Russian ally. He also said the details of Annan's peace plan for Syria must be released and debated.

Annan sent a five-member team of international experts to Syria on Sunday to try to secure a cease-fire between government and rebel forces leading an uprising against Mr. Assad's 11-year autocratic rule. Annan discussed his peace plan with Mr. Assad in Damascus earlier this month, but has said little about it since.

U.N. diplomats were meeting Tuesday in New York to debate a French-drafted Security Council statement that backs Annan's peace efforts but also warns of possible "further measures" if the Syrian government rejects them.

Russia and China have twice vetoed earlier Security Council proposals on Syria, saying the Western and Arab-backed draft resolutions amounted to interference in the country's internal affairs.

Russia Increasing Pressure

Vadim Saltikovsky, a professor of international relations at Moscow State University, told VOA that Russia now is increasing pressure on President Assad to negotiate because it fears Syria is on the brink of a full-fledged civil war.

Syrian activists say government troops shelled several opposition hubs across the country on Tuesday, killing at least 30 people, most in the central region of Homs. They say one soldier also was killed in southern Syria. Syrian state news agency SANA said seven other security personnel were buried Tuesday, after being killed in fighting with rebels.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Syria as "unacceptable" and "intolerable." Mr. Ban made the comments in Bogor, Indonesia, in response to a VOA Indonesian service reporter's question at a joint news conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

He said the international community has "no time to waste" in trying to end Syria's violence, warning that "one minute, one hour [of] delay will mean the death of more and more people."

The United Nations says at least 8,000 people have been killed in the Assad government's violent crackdown on the revolt, which began with peaceful protests and became increasingly militarized as army defectors attacked pro-Assad troops who assaulted civilians.

Watch related video of U.N. Security Council

Opposition Faces Criticism

Syria's armed opposition faced its first significant criticism from a major rights organization on Tuesday, with New York-based group Human Rights Watch accusing some rebels of committing serious abuses, including kidnappings, torture and executions.

HRW made the accusation in an open letter to Syria's main exiled opposition group, the Syrian National Council. It said the Syrian government's "brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups" against Syrian security forces and Assad supporters. The rights group said Syrian opposition leaders should urge the rebels to stop such abuses.

The Russian Navy

In other developments Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov rejected reports that Russian warships have been visiting a Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, calling them "fairy tales."

Lavrov told reporters that a ship docked at the port is a Russian Navy oil tanker on a mission to supply Russian anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. He said Russian security forces were on board to protect the tanker from pirates. It is unclear why the ship is docked 8,000 kilometers from the piracy area, off the coast of Somalia.

As violence has increased in Syria, Russia has rotated its Navy ships through Tartous, reportedly in case they are needed for emergency evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

With Western concern growing about possible Russian military intervention in Syria, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov also told reporters, "There is no special task force; there are no troops in Syria."

Since December, Reuters reports, four Russian cargo ships have unloaded arms and munitions at Tartus. On Monday, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that Russia has supplied 78 percent of Syria’s arms imports since 2007.

Saltikovsky of Moscow State University says that Russian military deliveries are simply fulfilling existing contracts.

Wire services contributed to this report. Brooke reported from Moscow and Lipin from Washington.

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