Putin Jabs France over Syria

Paris/Berlin - European leaders tried Friday to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to support a harder course against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But while German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Fancois Hollande said after meeting separately with the Russian leader that they had all agreed to seek a political solution to the more-than-one-year deadly conflict, the Russian leader showed no sign of budging.

In Berlin, Putin denied charges, made recently by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Russian arms shipments were being used against Syrian opposition forces and made clear he opposed to an arms embargo on Damascus.

"As far as the arms deliveries are concerned, Russia is not supplying any weapons that could be deployed in civil conflict," Putin insisted.

Russia has consistently supported the al-Assad regime, and in Paris answered moralistic charges by western countries that Moscow was fueling the conflict with its support.

"Assad has visited Paris more often than he has visited Moscow," Putin charged. Hollande parried, indicating that such visits were the doing of his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy: "I do not accept any responsibility for that."

Moscow is a close ally of Damascus and al-Assad, and has resisted all efforts in the UN Security Council and in the international arena to pursue harder action against al-Assad. Hollande has not excluded French support for a military initiative under UN mandate.

But Putin, in his meetings with Merkel, rejected an escalation of UN action.

More than 10,000 Syrians have died since March 2011 in the conflict, according to UN accounting. Last weekend's massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, Syria, almost half of them children, has increased pressure on Russia to change its stance. The US has warned that Russian arms shipments and Iran's deployment of soldiers into Syria have raised the likelihood of not only sectarian civil war but also a proxy war with Iran.

Putin stopped first in Berlin, and then in Paris. Both Hollande and Merkel put the best face on the meetings, saying that Russia had agreed to pursue a political solution, with an emphasis on following through with UN and Arab League negotiator Kofi Annan's peace plan.

But Hollande insisted that a solution was unthinkable without the departure of al-Assad, whom he said had discredited himself with his actions.

Putin noted that the radicalization of the situation in Syria threatened to escalate out of control. "Our goal is in reconciling the conflicting parties," Putin said in Paris. "We want to help all parties to find a political solution."

In both capitals, Putin rejected harder sanctions, telling Hollande: "You know yourself that sanctions don't always work." He warned of civil war and urged patience in supporting Annan's peace plan, which has been violated repeatedly since it was sealed in April.

Merkel urged Russia to help keep alive the Annan peace plan, saying she had "the impression that no one has an interest in a civil war, and we talked about what can be done to prevent such a civil war."

"We discussed these topics very calmly and I had the impression that we have the same interest, also for the sake of the stability of the region as a whole, but perhaps with differences about the way to get there," she said.

On the issue of Russian objections to NATO's missile defence system in eastern Europe, Putin said in Paris that Russia poses no danger to the West. He demanded guarantees, not simple promises, on the issue.

Hollande, who said he would visit Russia in the near future, announced a Russian-French commission for cooperation in economic and financial areas. But he added he would not attend the Euro 2012 football matches in Ukraine to protest the imprisonment of the ailing opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko by the Ukraine regime, which enjoys strong support from Moscow.

In Berlin, Putin and Merkel discussed the eurozone debt crisis. Putin said Russia had an interest in the euro's stability.

"Forty per cent of our foreign reserves, and they are the third largest in the world, are held in euros," Putin said. A large proportion was invested in German government bonds were "not lucrative," but stable.

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