Putin heads to Europe amid public outcry over Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY NIKOLSKY)

BERLIN: President Vladimir Putin is expected to face pressure for Russia to drop its resistance to U.N. action on Syria when he meets the leaders of two of Europe's key powers on Friday.

Putin is due to hold talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Francois Hollande as part of his first foreign visit after returning to the Kremlin for a historic third term after unprecedented protests against his rule.

The brief trips, first to Berlin and later to Paris, come amid mounting pressure by the West on Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in the wake of a massacre last week that sparked global outrage.

Germany, France, Britain, the United States and other Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats after the massacre of 108 people, mainly women and children, in Houla, in central Syria on Friday and Saturday.

Hollande has refused to rule out foreign military intervention, as long as it is carried out with U.N. backing, to stamp out nearly 15 months of fighting, which observers believe has claimed some 13,000 lives.

Russia came in for criticism by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday over its resistance to U.N. action on Syria when she warned that its policy of propping up the Assad regime could contribute to a civil war.

But Moscow has indicated it is in no mood to shift its stance on its Soviet-era ally, with Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that Russia's position was "balanced and consistent and completely logical."

A day ahead of her talks with Putin, Merkel struck a conciliatory note saying that Russia had worked "constructively" on the Syria crisis at the U.N. Security Council, but she declined to voice her expectations of the meeting with Putin.

Germany sees no grounds to speculate on a possible military intervention in Syria, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was quoted as saying in an interview in Thursday's Die Welt newspaper.

He said the international community had to use "all political leverage" to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria and ensure the implementation of the peace plan drawn up by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

For his part, Hollande, who will meet Putin for the first time since both men assumed office last month, said he would seek to persuade Putin to ramp up pressure on Syria and support a new round of sanctions.

"I will talk about it with President Putin when he comes to Paris on Friday. He, along with China, has been the most reluctant on the question of sanctions," Hollande said.

"And we must convince them that it is not possible to allow the Assad regime to massacre its own people."

The Kremlin is unlikely to radically shift its stance on Syria although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has insisted that Russia supports Annan's peace plan and not Assad.

Intense behind-the-scenes negotiations focused on ways Moscow could back down without losing its diplomatic prestige are believed to be under way.

The New York Times has reported that one option involves a transition of power similar to that used to end president Ali Abdullah Saleh's strongman rule in Yemen this year.

Ahead of his three-nation visit which started in isolated Belarus on Thursday, Putin convened a meeting of the influential Security Council dedicated to the Syria crisis as well as the Kremlin's ties with Belarus which is blackballed by the West for its government's crackdown on the opposition.





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