Russia Supports Assad, Blast Rocks Damascus

Posted June 28th, 2012 at 10:35 am (UTC-5)
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Russia says Syria needs a period of political transition but has rejected calls for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power in a possible formation of a unity government. Meanwhile, there has been a powerful explosion near the country's main court in Damascus.

Thursday's developments came as neighboring Turkey deployed troops and anti-aircraft batteries to the Syrian border following the downing of one of its military jets by Syrian forces last week.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any solution to the crisis in Syria must be decided by Syrians themselves and that Russia would not support external “meddling.”

Syrian opposition groups said Thursday they would not accept any proposed political transition plan that does not explicitly require Mr. Assad to step down.

The diplomatic wrangling emerged ahead of Saturday's planned “action group” meeting in Geneva where international envoy Kofi Annan could propose a national unity cabinet that includes opposition figures. Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said the plan does not demand Mr. Assad's resignation but excludes those whose participation could undermine stability. Details were vague.

Also Thursday, a strong blast rocked central Damascus just outside the Palace of Justice in what state television called a “terrorist” attack. Dozens of burned out cars were strewn around a parking lot used by lawyers and judges. Three people were reportedly wounded.

The rebel Free Syrian Army has stepped up pressure on the capital in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, gunmen stormed a pro-government television station in a Damascus suburb, killing seven employees and destroying its studios with explosives. Syrian officials blamed the armed opposition, while the FSA said the attack was carried out by defectors from Syria's elite Republican Guard. In April, assailants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Central Bank building.

Meanwhile, Turkish military convoys moved toward the Syrian frontier, reacting to Syria's downing of a Turkish warplane last week. The deployment came two days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered his troops to treat any Syrian military element approaching the border as a target.

Turkey hosts more than 33,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border as well as rebel units fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad. The regional power has called for the opening of a humanitarian corridor on Syrian soil if the refugee crisis becomes unmanageable or if the violence and killings grow to intolerable proportions.

Mr. Annan's transition proposal is one of the main topics that Russia, the other four permanent U.N. Security Council members and key players in the Middle East will discuss on Saturday.

Lavrov said Moscow has not agreed to any new version of Mr. Annan's crumbling cease-fire proposal and reiterated his government's strong opposition to any outside efforts that would force regime change in Syria.

“The meeting in Geneva was intended to support Kofi Annan's plan and it must set the conditions for the end of violence and the start of an all-Syrian national dialogue, and not pre-determine the contents of this dialogue.”

Lavrov is due to host other talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday in St. Petersburg.

The Russian foreign minister said it was a “mistake” not to invite Syrian ally Iran to the upcoming Geneva meeting, calling the country an “influential player” in the situation. Saudi Arabia, a prominent supporter of those opposed to Mr. Assad, was also left off the list.