Russia calls for peace talks in Syria amid fears of a civil war

Syria's allies in Russia called yesterday for urgent talks between Damascus and the opposition, saying an alleged attack by Syrian renegade troops on a government building looked like the start of a civil war.

President Bashar al-Assad is facing severe international isolation stemming from his crackdown on an eight-month-old uprising, which the UN estimates has killed 3,500 people. "This is all looking very much like a civil war," the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Moscow, referring to reports of a pre-dawn attack on Wednesday by the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors. The attack could not be independently confirmed, and the Free Syrian Army released no details.

The army defectors reportedly fired machine-guns and rockets at an Air Force Intelligence base just outside Damascus, a brazen attack that sent a strong signal the popular uprising could descend into an armed conflict.

Mr Lavrov urged Syrian and opposition forces alike to cease violence and negotiate. "Violence is not only coming from the authorities," he said. "More and more weapons are smuggled in from foreign states."

Days ago, Mr Lavrov suggested Western countries were exacerbating problems in Syria. "When these people hear tough statements from Washington and Brussels saying no dialogue should be held with [Mr Assad] and he should resign, of course, this does not move to constructive talks," Mr Lavrov was quoted -by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Even as President Assad was losing allies in quick succession, Russia and China kept up their long-standing ties with Damascus. In October, they vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria. But yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, appeared to suggest Beijing might support a resolution. "It depends on whether these actions will help to resolve the tensions in Syria and facilitate the resolution of disputes through political dialogue," he said.

Sources claim five civilians were killed in raids yesterday by security forces in central, eastern and northern Syria. They said the dead included a nine-year-old girl.