|Russia won't tell Assad to go, Lavrov says||
MOSCOW - Russia will "absolutely not" tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and make way for a political transition, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in comments published on Friday, Reuters reported.
The remarks to the BBC were a reiteration of Moscow's position that Assad's exit must not be a precondition for a negotiated solution to the two-year-old conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Asked whether there was a chance that Russia would tell Assad he should step down for the sake of a peace agreement, Lavrov replied: "Absolutely not. You know that we're not in the regime-change game."
"We are against interference in domestic conflicts. And this is our position, which should be of no surprise to anyone," he said, according to an English-language version of his comments posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.
Lavrov said Assad had repeatedly said he was not going to leave.
"All those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing, and that he is prepared to discuss any issue -- among the Syrians."
Russia has blocked three anti-Assad resolutions at the UN Security Council, a position that has set it against certain Western and Arab nations which say he must leave power.
Lavrov said he saw signs of flexibility.
"I'm glad that the latest discussions and the latest gestures from the opposition, and statements from some of those who support the opposition, hint that they would be prepared to start negotiations with some negotiating team without asking President Assad to step down," he was quoted as saying.
Lavrov spoke before a visit to London next week for the first meeting under the auspices of a new "strategic dialogue" between Russia and Britain. Syria is among the issues on the agenda for the talks on Wednesday between the two countries' foreign and defense ministers.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011. Damascus says outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorists are the driving factor behind the unrest and deadly violence while the opposition accuses the security forces of being behind the killings.
Western states have been calling for Assad to step down. However, Russia and China are strongly opposed to the Western drive to oust Assad.
The Syrian government says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the armed militants are foreign nationals, mostly from Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.
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