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Russia stands by Assad despite further bloodshed in Syria

Russia's Foreign Ministry refused yesterday to back the West's call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign, saying that the regime in Damascus must be given sufficient time to implement reforms. The statement came as Syria's security forces killed at least 10 people.

Alexander Lukashevich, a ministry spokesman, said in a statement that Russia believes Mr Assad must be given time to fulfil promises of reform and that he has already made "some significant steps", including lifting the state of emergency and issuing a decree allowing peaceful demonstrations.

He said that Russia disagrees with the United States and the European Union, which have urged Mr Assad to step down. Earlier this week, Mr Assad told the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the military phase of the crackdown was complete.

The promise did not stop Syrian security forces from firing on thousands of protesters who poured into the streets throughout the country. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Co-ordination Committees, a group that documents anti-regime protests, said demonstrations took place in Damascus, the central city of Homs, the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and other areas. The observatory said five people were killed in the southern village of Ghabagheb, three in the nearby village of Hirak and one each in Homs and the southern village of Inkhil. The LCC said that 12 people were killed, mostly in the south.

It was impossible to verify the death toll independently because Syria has banned foreign reporters. There was also a wave of arrests. Syrian state TV said gunmen shot dead one policeman and wounded four in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, while four policemen were wounded in Inkhil.

Describing Syria as "one of the fulcrums of the Middle East", Mr Lukashevich said Russia is concerned about the situation and reports of deaths.

However, Moscow has continued to provide Syria with weapons, despite US and Israeli protests. On Thursday, the chief of Russia's state arms trader Rosoboronexport, Anatoly Isaikin, said Moscow will keep supplying combat jets and other military gear to Syria under contracts totalling about $3.5bn.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier this month that he had warned Syria's leader he will face a "sad fate" if he fails to introduce reforms and open a peaceful dialogue with the opposition.