Russia softens and offers to back Annan's Syria plan at UN

Russia offered heavily-qualified support yesterday for a United Nations initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria, as opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's regime faced an intensifying struggle to oust him.

Moscow's willingness to support the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's mediation mission, provided it did not present an ultimatum to the Syrian President, came as rebel groups came under renewed pressure.

With rebel fighters fleeing the eastern city of Deir al-Zor in the face of a fierce armoured assault, the opposition was sharply criticised by a human rights group for exploiting sectarian tensions and carrying out kidnappings, torture, arbitrary detentions and executions.

Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, was quick to put conditions on Russia's provisional backing for Mr Annan's mission, which is intended to bring about a ceasefire, the delivery of humanitarian aid and dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition.

In particular, Mr Lavrov insisted that opposition groups had an equal responsibility for ending the violence, a view which was in sharp contrast to the US position – reiterated by a State Department spokesman, Victoria Nuland, on Monday – that "it is the regime that bears primary responsibility for the violence, and they need to stop first".

Human Rights Watch, which has led criticism of rights violations by the Damascus regime during the fighting, complained in an open letter to the opposition Syrian National Council that some armed attacks by opposition fighters were motivated by religious and sectarian sentiments because some communities had seemed to ally with the government. Some members of minorities fear the consequences of a Sunni Muslim takeover if President Assad's Allawite leadership is deposed.

While Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said fighters carrying out the serious abuses did not appear to be answerable to any central command, she added: "The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups. Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances."

The flight of relatively lightly-armed rebels from Deir al-Zor yesterday followed other retreats from towns and cities. A statement by Deir al-Zor's Revolution Committees' Union said: "Tanks entered residential neighbourhoods, especially in south-eastern areas of Deir al-Zor. The Free Syrian Army pulled out to avoid a civilian massacre."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 31 people were killed in Syria yesterday – 21 of them in Homs province, which came under heavy artillery fire. Opposition sources told the Associated Press news agency that residential areas in the city of Hama and the town of Rasta were shelled.

Meanwhile, Mr Lavrov dismissed as "fairy tales" reports that a Russian ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartus was delivering weapons or special forces troops to aid President Assad. He said it was refuelling Russian warships on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

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