Russia denied on Wednesday talking with Washington about offering exile to Syria’s president, as the chief UN observer said world powers are talking too much and not doing enough to end the Syrian conflict.
Ahead of a Paris meeting of the so-called “Friends of Syria,” which supports President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 more people were killed in violence across the country.
Moscow denied holding talks with Washington about offering Assad exile as a way out of 16 months of bloodshed, which the Britain-based Observatory says has claimed more than 16,500 lives.
“The situation with the future of … Assad is not being discussed with the United States,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Earlier, Moscow’s Kommersant daily had quoted a Russian diplomat as saying Western nations led by the United States were making “active attempts” to persuade Moscow to offer a home to Assad.
But the report said Moscow objected to the idea, and Ryabkov stressed that Russia rejected a foreign solution to the brutal fighting now tearing apart its closest remaining Middle East ally.
The divide was further underscored on Wednesday when a general became the 15th such high-ranking officer to defect, crossing into Turkey with two colonels, as well as soldiers and their families, a Turkish diplomat said.
Russia has indicated it will stay away from the Paris meeting on Friday after accusing the West of seeking to distort a deal struck last weekend for a political transition in the violence-hit nation.
Moscow’s move to shun the gathering comes after UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan stressed that a ceasefire was imperative.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has hailed the Geneva accord based on proposals by Annan as an “important step” but argued that Western capitals had read more into the final statement than what was written on paper.
World powers agreed a transition plan that did not make an explicit call for Assad to quit power, but the West swiftly made clear it saw no role for him in a unity government.
“These (Geneva) agreements are not there to be interpreted,” Lavrov said.
China, meanwhile, said its position on plans for a transition of power in Syria remained firm, and that Beijing wanted the “spirit” of the Geneva agreement to be followed.
Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was non-committal over whether China would attend the Paris meeting, the third such gathering after one in Tunis in February and another in April in Istanbul.
Speaking to journalists in Damascus, the chief UN observer criticized the international community for talking too much in luxurious settings and doing too little on the ground to stop the violence.
“There is this feeling that it’s too much talk in nice hotels, in nice meetings and too little action to move forward and stop the violence,” said Major General Robert Mood, who attended the Geneva meeting.
“The urgency of stopping the violence is maybe the most important issue for everyone involved” in the conflict, he said.
The general’s 300-strong mission suspended work in mid-June because of escalating violence. As soon as “the conditions on the ground allow the implementation of our mandated task, we will resume the mandated task,” Mood said.
Annan said on Tuesday a real ceasefire was “imperative,” nearly three months after a truce the former UN secretary general brokered failed to take effect.
On Wednesday, the Observatory reported dawn clashes south of Damascus near a branch of the feared air force intelligence service.
An activist in the central city of Homs told AFP by Skype that regime forces were bombarding two rebel districts, Sultaniyeh and Jobar, and that Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were fighting to retake the Baba Amr neighborhood.
Turkey’s military announced on Wednesday that the bodies of the two pilots of a Turkish jet downed by Syria on June 22 have been found at the bottom of the eastern Mediterranean sea.
It maintained the two-seater F-4 Phantom was shot in international airspace by Syrian fire, but that the wreckage of the downed fighter has not yet been spotted.
With relations between the two predominantly Muslim neighbors plunging, Assad accused Ankara in a Turkish newspaper interview published on Wednesday of giving logistical backing to Syrian “terrorists.”
“Turkey’s desire to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs has put it in a position which unfortunately makes it a party to all the bloody activities,” Assad told the daily Cumhuriyet.
“Turkey has supplied all logistic support to the terrorists who have killed our people,” he charged.
Meanwhile, a two-day meeting of opposition groups held behind closed doors in Cairo ended on Wednesday after being boycotted by two of the largest groups — the Syrian Revolution General Commission and the FSA.
Participants said the talks descended into chaos and even fist fights, and that delegates had failed to present a united bloc.
“Unfortunately yes, there were many disagreements,” said prominent Syrian activist Walid al-Bunni.
But a senior Arab League official said “they did agree on the final documents, which include an end to the Assad regime, support of the Free Syrian Army, and they agreed on basic constitutional principles of justice, democracy and pluralism.”