Russia dismissed as unacceptable last night a joint European and Arab League attempt at the UN Security Council to demand President Assad of Syria step down.
In a sign, however, that Moscow may be willing to take a more conciliatory stance on Syria the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said last night that Russia was ready to "engage" on the proposed draft.
Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad has been increasingly at odds with international opinion ahead of the UN Security Council meeting to discuss ways to loosen the Syrian government's hold on power, where thousands have died in an 11-month uprising.
In a rare show of unity, European and Arab powersbacked a new draft resolution reflecting Arab League demands that President Assad step aside to allow a political transition to a democratic, pluralist system of government.
Moscow has shown almost unshakeable support for Mr Assad since the uprising began and wields a Security Council veto. It made clear before the meeting it would block the wording of the resolution as it stands.
"Any decision about a future political settlement in Syria must be made during the political process without... preliminary conditions and the demand for Assad's resignation is a preliminary condition," Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying earlier yesterday. The Kremlin, a major arms supplier to Syria, is particularly concerned about unspecified "other measures" to be taken if Syria does not comply within 15 days.
A vote could take place on the draft resolution as early as next week.
The Security Council meeting took place as Syrian forces loyal to President Assad are faced with armed resistance ever closer to the centre of Damascus. At least one suburb was said last night to have been wrestled from its control, though the rebels position was seen as tenuous.
Nearly 100 people have died in two days of escalating violence. At least 37 people were killed yesterday, 15 of them during a pre-dawn assault by security forces on Hama, where eyewitnesses told of bodies strewn in the street. Another 22 were killed elsewhere in the country, including 12 members of the security forces, activists said.