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At least seven people were killed across Syria on Wednesday as Russian media reported the West is seeking to persuade Moscow to host President Bashar al-Assad in exile as a way out of the escalating crisis.
Russia has indicated it will stay away from a Paris meeting on the situation in its key Middle East ally after accusing the West of seeking to distort a deal for a political transition in the violence-hit nation.
Moscow's move to shun Friday's “Friends of Syria” gathering comes after UN and Arab League international peace envoy Kofi Annan said a ceasefire was imperative.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has hailed the Geneva accord based on proposals by Annan as an “important step,” but said Western capitals had read more into the final statement than what was written on paper.
World powers agreed a plan for a Syria transition 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. They mean exactly what is said in the communique and we need to follow the agreements that were made,” Lavrov said.
His comments came soon after Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters on Tuesday that a “shift” in positions by Russia and its diplomatic ally China at the Geneva talks should not be underestimated.
Russia's Kommersant daily reported that Western nations led by the United States are seeking to persuade Moscow to host Assad in exile.
Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, it said there were “active attempts” to persuade Moscow to offer a home to Assad, whose fate has become a major sticking point.
But Russia has so far not been receptive to the idea, even though Kremlin sources put Assad's chances of political survival at “10 percent,” it said.
Annan said a real ceasefire was imperative, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll reached 69 on Tuesday, including 36 civilians, nearly three months after a truce he brokered failed to take effect.
Monitors say the conflict has killed more than 16 500 people since March 2011.
On Wednesday, the Observatory reported dawn clashes south of Damascus near a branch of the feared air force intelligence service.
It also reported at least seven people killed nationwide, among them four civilians in the village of Maaret al-Numan in the northwest province of Idlib.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Russia will not attend the Paris meeting, which is aimed at coordinating Western and Arab efforts to stop the violence.
“Russia was invited. They made it known that they did not want to participate, which is not a surprise,” he told reporters. Russia and China did not attend any previous meetings of the group.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Russians were free to decide whether to attend the Paris talks or not.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will lead the US delegation, an official said, with Nuland saying more than 100 countries would attend the talks “to support change and democracy and pluralism” in Syria.
China said on Wednesday its position on plans for a transition of power in Syria remained firm, and that it wanted the “spirit” of the Geneva agreement to be followed.
“China believes that the urgent task is that the spirit of the communique of the action group on the Syrian issue should be implemented,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in Beijing.
Liu 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.
A two-day meeting of opposition groups held behind closed doors in Cairo ended late on Tuesday with a consensus statement, according to Egypt's official MENA news agency.
However, the conference was boycotted by two of the largest groups Ä the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) and the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Meanwhile, Assad accused Turkey in an interview published on Wednesday of giving logistical backing to Syrian “terrorists” and told Ankara to stop meddling in Syrian affairs.
“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,” he told the daily Cumhuriyet.
“Turkey has supplied all logistic support to the terrorists who have killed our people.”
Russia said a Turkish F-4 Phantom shot down by Syria on June 22 was asking for trouble when it entered Syrian airspace, the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian source as saying.
On Tuesday, Cumhuriyet quoted Assad as saying he regretted the incident but insisted the warplane was in Syrian airspace. - Sapa-AFP