Russia denies it endorsed call for Assad to leave

Russia on Thursday acknowledged that a transition period is necessary in Syria to end the violence, but said it had not agreed to a plan by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that would call for President Bashar Assad to step down and for the creation of a national unity government.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said "it is obvious that a transitional period is needed to overcome the Syrian crisis," but rejected efforts by outside forces to end the country's bloody conflict and insisted that any plans for the future rest on Syria.

Lavrov said Saturday talks by major powers in Geneva must focus on convincing opposition groups to soften their demands.

"We are not supporting and will not support any external meddling," Lavrov said. "External players must not dictate ... to Syrians, but, first of all, must commit to influencing all the sides in Syria to stop the violence."

But, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued it was "very clear" that the participants — including Russia — were on board with the transition plan. She told reporters that the invitations to the meeting made clear that representatives "were coming on the basis of (Annan's) transition plan."

She said she expects the meeting "to provide an opportunity to make real progress" on that plan.

Diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia — Syria's most important ally, protector and supplier of arms — to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

But the country — one of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members along with Britain, China, France and the U.S. — has warned it would firmly oppose any document urging Assad to step down.

"First of all, no agreed-upon projects exist, the work on the possible final document is going on," Lavrov told reporters. "I think that the fact that certain formulas, certain ideas proposed for the possible final document by certain countries are leaked to the media manifests an improper approach to diplomacy."

Lavrov said that diplomatic efforts should focus on urging the opposition groups to "refuse from their uncompromising approaches and, in accordance with the Kofi Annan plan, sit down for negotiations with the government."

Lavrov also criticized the exclusion of major regional player Iran from Saturday's high-level meeting.

"Iran is undoubtedly a powerful player in the whole situation," Lavrov said. "Leaving it out of the loop of the Geneva meeting is a mistake."

Also Thursday, a Russian defense official reportedly said that three Syrian attack helicopters that have been refurbished in Russia will be sent to Syria. Last week, a cargo ship carrying the helicopters to Syria was forced to turn back after its British insurer removed the coverage for the vessel.

Alexander Fomin, the Russian defense official, was quoted by the Ria Novosti news agency as saying that Russia plans to deliver the helicopters, without specifying how or when. "Syria is our friend," he was quoted as saying. "And we fulfill all obligations we make to our friends."

Russia has said that the helicopters had been supplied to Syria during Soviet times and refurbished under a 2008 contract.


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.