PARIS - Russia denies holding talks with western nations about the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but French officials say talks involving Moscow officials are taking place.
In an interview on French radio, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said discussions among U.S., French and Russian officials, along with international mediator Kofi Annan, are underway to prepare for a Syria without its current leader, President Bashar al-Assad.
Explaining that Russia, Syria's staunchest international ally, recognizes Assad is a tyrant and assassin, he said, Moscow is not attached to him as a person but is worried about who would replace him if driven from power.
While Fabius said an interim post-Assad scenario could draw on opposition leaders, along with former members of the Assad government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied holding any discussions about Assad's departure.
In remarks broadcast on France 24 television, Lavrov said "no such discussions" took place, and that Russia is "not involved in regime change," either through the United Nations Security Council or political plotting.
The international community is looking for ways to end the increasingly violent Syrian crisis that France describes as a civil war.
The conflict escalated this week, with a fierce offensive by the Syrian regime against rebel-held areas.
Foreign Minister Fabius said France will not supply arms to the rebels because it would escalate the fighting. But, he added, Paris might supply communications material to the rebels, which would be a first.