|Russia rejects Assad exit as precondition for Syria deal||
Russia voiced support on Saturday for international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi but insisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's exit cannot be a precondition for a deal to end the country's conflict, Reuters reported.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since mid-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.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement following talks on Friday with the United States and Brahimi reiterated calls for an end to violence in Syria, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.
Brahimi said the issue of Assad, whom the United States, European powers and their allies in the Persian Gulf insist must step down to end the violence, appeared to be a sticking point at the meeting in Geneva.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said: "As before, we firmly uphold the thesis that questions about Syria's future must be decided by the Syrians themselves, without interference from outside or the imposition of prepared recipes for development."
Russia has been Assad's most powerful international backer, joining with China to block three Western-backed UN Security Council resolutions aimed to pressure him or push him from power. Assad can also rely on regional powerhouse Iran.
In Geneva, Russia called for "a political transition process" based on an agreement by foreign powers last June.
Brahimi, who is trying to build on the agreement reached in Geneva on June 30, has met three times with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats since early December and met Assad in Damascus.
Russia and the United States disagreed over what the June agreement meant for Assad, with Washington saying it sent a clear signal he must go and Russia contending it did not.
On Sunday, Assad outlined a new peace initiative that includes a national reconciliation conference, and the formation of a wide representative government which would then oversee new elections, a new constitution and general amnesty.
In a one-hour speech to the nation, Assad stated that the initiative can only take roots after regional and Western countries stop funding “militant extremists” fighting to overthrow the government, The Associated Press reported.
Assad said that Syria will not take dictates from anyone, and called on his countrymen to unite against "murderous criminals" whom he said are carrying out a foreign plot seeking to tear the nation apart.
The Syrian president ignored Western demands for him to step down and said he is ready to hold a dialogue but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria." He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming the rebels first.
Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Assad told the hall packed with his supporters that "we are in a state of war. We are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other."
"It is a war between the nation and its enemies, between the people and the murderous criminals," he added. The audience frequently broke out in cheers and applause.
Assad, in his speech, acknowledged the enormous impact of the nation's conflict, which the United Nations recent estimated had killed more than 60,000 people.
"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy in any corner of the country in the absence of security and stability," he said. "I look at the eyes of Syria's children and I don't see any happiness."
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