Russia urges Assad to start troop pullout

AVET DEMOURIAN Associated Press Published:

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) -- Syria's government must take the first step toward settling the country's conflict by pulling troops from city streets, Russia's foreign minister said Monday, raising pressure on an old ally.

While Sergey Lavrov added that the country's opposition forces should quickly follow suit and withdraw too, his statement appeared to reflect Moscow's increasing impatience with Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.

Russia, along with China, has twice shielded President Assad from United Nations sanctions over his crackdown on an uprising in which more than 9,000 people have been killed. But Moscow also has strongly supported a plan to settle the crisis by Kofi Annan, the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy for Syria.

"The Syrian government must take the first step and start the troop withdrawal in line with Kofi Annan's plan," Lavrov said at a briefing in Yerevan following talks with his Armenian counterpart.

Lavrov's statement challenged the stance taken by the Syrian government, which has said it wouldn't withdraw forces from towns and cities until life returns to normal. He added, however, that the opposition needs to reciprocate quickly.

"Unless the beginning of such withdrawal is accompanied by a similar action by all those fighting the government of Syria, I don't think we will achieve any result," he added.

In Geneva Monday, the president of the Red Cross said he had returned to Syria for a two-day visit aimed at convincing the country's leaders to give more access to aid workers.

Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement that he also will raise "the issue of access to all places of detention" and how to stop the fighting for two hours a day. He said a daily pause is essential to evacuate the wounded and deliver aid.

Lavrov on Monday warned the West against giving ultimatums to Damascus, saying that the priority now should be to separate the warring parties and open the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

"Ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help," he said. "We all want a quick end to bloodshed, but that demand should be addressed to all warring parties in Syria."

Lavrov said Russia had chosen not to attend Sunday's meeting of the "Friends of the Syrian People" in Turkey's second biggest city Istanbul because its organizers had failed to invite Syrian government representatives.

"I think such an approach is dangerous and contradicts Kofi Annan's efforts," he said. "We are trying to be friends of all the Syrians, and not just some part of the Syrian people."

He said that Moscow will soon host two separate opposition delegations for talks.

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John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.