The statements appeared intended to ease Western concerns about
President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to a peace process that
started last month, and to abandoning his chemical arsenal by
mid-year under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
They came as Russia hosted the leader of the Syrian opposition
National Coalition for the first time in the three-year-old conflict
that has killed more than 100,000 people and spawned mutual
recriminations between Russia and the West.
Syria plans to send a large shipment of toxic agents out of the
country this month and can complete the removal process by March 1,
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.
"Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal of a
large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They
are ready to complete this process by March 1," state-run Russia
news agency RIA quoted Gatilov as saying.
Moscow, Assad's most powerful diplomatic backer, has been under
pressure to push Damascus to speed up shipments since Reuters
reported last week that it had given up less than 5 percent of its
The operation was far behind schedule and the deadline for sending
all toxic agents out by this week will be missed.
U.S. officials accused Damascus of dragging its feet and Secretary
of State John Kerry asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
last Friday to put pressure on Assad's government to accelerate the
"The Syrian government is slowing down the destruction of its
chemical weapons ... Bashar al-Assad's government must respect the
commitments that it has made," French Foreign Minister Laurent
Fabius said on Europe 1 radio on Tuesday.
Russia has said Western concerns are overblown and rejected
accusations that the delays are deliberate, citing security and
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Reuters on Monday that
Russia remains confident the June 30 deadline for the elimination of
Syria's chemical arsenal can be met.
Despite sharp differences over the conflict in Syria, Russia and the
United States have joined forces to initiate peace talks that began
last month in Geneva, and in September agreed the plan to eliminate
its chemical arsenal after a deadly August 21 poison gas attack on
the outskirts of Damascus.
Assad's agreement to the plan, first proposed by Russia, helped
avert potential U.S. air strikes.
[to top of second column]
But the delays have sparked Western suspicion he wants to use the
process as a lever in the Geneva talks, which are expected to resume
on Monday though the government delegation has not committed to
Another deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said on Tuesday
that Russia is certain the government will attend.
"We have no doubt that the government delegation will take part in
the second round of international talks in Geneva," Bogdanov told
reporters before talks between Lavrov and Syrian opposition leader
Sitting across from Lavrov at the start of their talks in the
Russian Foreign Ministry guest house, with security much tighter
than usual, Jarba said the opposition would take part "in spite of
the fact that even during the Geneva process murders were continuing
with the use of barrel bombs that were dropped on civilians".
He said that during the first round, which ended on Friday, the
government delegation had failed to declare that it would carry out
steps laid out in an agreement reached by world powers in June 2012
That was apparent reference to the June 2012 Geneva Communique's
call for the creation of an interim governing body formed by mutual
consent — which the opposition says would mean excluding Assad.
The opposition hopes the Geneva talks will lead to Assad's exit from
power through the creation of an interim governing body, while the
government wants to focus on fighting "terrorism" and says Assad may
seek reelection this year.
Russia says Assad's exit from power cannot be a precondition for a
political solution, but rejects Western accusations that it is
shielding the Syrian leader.
Lavrov, who had long been seeking to bring Jarba to Moscow for
talks, said Russia is working with all sides to aid the search for a
solution and has been throughout the conflict.
(Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris;
writing by Steve Gutterman; editing by Giles Elgood)
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