Assad may go as part of Syria settlement: Russia

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Russia said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad could leave power as part of a settlement to end bloodshed in Syria, as Damascus agreed to allow relief workers to visit four trouble spots.
“We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process,” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in Switzerland.
“This issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves,” ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him as saying.
Moscow has been facing mounting pressure to back Assad’s departure as a first step in a settlement that would see his inner circle assume command in the interim, based on a US-backed transition in Yemen earlier this year.
Tuesday’s statement was one of its most explicit about Assad’s position since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to clearly back his rule during a visit to Damascus in February.
It came as Russia and China, which have stalled Western-led moves against Damascus, began talks on ending nearly 15 months of violence that has killed more than 13,500 people, and cost the lives of another 26 people on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin began talks with President Hu Jintao, a day ahead of a meeting with Hu’s likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping.
China’s envoy to the United Nations said on Monday that efforts to end the Syrian bloodshed were at a “crossroads,” and that government and opposition forces must halt violence.
Both it and Russia, which have twice used their veto powers to block tougher action against Assad’s regime at the UN Security Council, have come under mounting pressure to change their stance since last month’s Houla massacre.
China’s ambassador Li Baodong said the massacre of at least 108 people, most of them women and children, had dealt a huge blow to UN-Arab envoy Kofi Annan’s mediation mission, as Beijing took over the chair of the Security Council for June.
Li told reporters, without signalling any easing in China’s opposition to sanctions against Assad: “The political process to solve the Syrian crisis is at a crossroads.”
The Houla massacre “has caused collateral damage to Annan’s mediation effort. And also it presents a huge challenge to the international community,” Li said.
Bloodshed has persisted in Syria despite a UN-backed peace plan brokered by Annan that put almost 300 observers on the ground.
— Houla collateral damage —
Access has been more restricted for aid agencies, however, and the United Nations said on Tuesday that Syria’s government has now given them permission to visit four locations following a meeting on scaling up humanitarian aid.
“We will have a presence in Homs, Idlib, Daraa and Deir Ezzor to start with,” said John Ging, director of the coordination and response unit at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN estimates that at least one million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.

10 dead as army presses assault on rebel bastions

Syrian troops kept up their offensive against rebel strongholds on Tuesday, seizing a town in the central province of Hama, as at least 10 people were killed nationwide, a human rights watchdog said.
Government forces carried out a “huge military operation” before dawn in the Kfar Oweid district of Idlib province in the northwest, killing four civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Troops clashed with rebel fighters in several other areas of the province, which borders Turkey and is major focus of operations for the rebel Free Syrian Army, the Britain-based watchdog said.
In Hama province, troops and militia backed by tanks entered the town of Kfar Zita, after rebel fighters pulled out following a three-day bombardment, the Observatory said. Militiamen looted homes and shops after residents fled, it added.
Government troops also raided the Souk al-Shajara area of Hama city, killing one rebel fighter.
Further south, rebel neighbourhoods of the flashpoint city of Homs came under renewed artillery bombardment and heavy machinegun fire, the Observatory said.
In Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast, troops assaulted the town of Al-Hafa, killing three rebel fighters, one of them a defecting army officer.
In the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor, gunmen assassinated an army colonel in front of his home, the Observatory said, while a general was killed by a roadside bomb in the neighbourhood of Barzeh, the Observatory added.
The state SANA news agency said “terrorist groups” killed three army officers in all. Two were gunned down in Deir Ezzor and another died when his car was blown up near the Barzeh district of Damascus, it said. At least 38 people were killed in violence across the country on Monday, including at least 18 civilians, the Observatory said, adding that huge night-time protests were held in several provinces.
In the main northern city of Aleppo, once a regime bastion, demonstrators chanted: “Revolution of dignity and freedom!” Thousands waved independence flags and sang revolutionary chants, according to amateur video posted on YouTube.
In the Damascus suburbs, protesters with covered faces chanted: “God protect the Free Syrian Army!”