Russia called on Syria Monday to immediately accept demands by the International Committee for the Red Cross for a daily two-hour humanitarian truce after talks with the Geneva-based body's head.
The crucial backing from Moscow to exert stronger pressure on its Soviet-era ally came after ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger huddled with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for about 90 minutes.
"The two parties call for the Syrian government and armed groups to immediately agree to a daily humanitarian truce to allow the ICRC access to the wounded and to civilians who need to be evacuated," a Russian foreign ministry statement said.
Moscow "underscored the need to allow the ICRC access to all detained persons in Syria following the protests", against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the statement said.
Kellenberger then flew to Brussels to ask NATO members to exert similar influence with Syria's rebel forces.
The meetings and simultaneous visit to Syria by teams from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and United Nations come amid frenzied efforts by relief workers to reach thousands of civilians trapped in the escalating violence.
The ICRC in particular has been promoting a daily ceasefire that could be used for delivering aid and bringing the injured to safety after a year of fighting that opposition activists say has claimed more than 9,100 lives.
Kellenberger told the ITAR-TASS news agency before leaving Moscow that he felt "gratified" that Russia shared Western concerns about the humanitarian situation in Syria.
"I would like to note with satisfaction and gratitude that Sergei Lavrov shares our concern about these problems," Kellenberger was quoted as saying.
"As you well understand, Russia's support is very important to us," he said. "The most important issue for us is to ensure humanitarian ceasefires as soon as possible."
Other important questions were free access to detainees and to ensure that prisoners were not ill-treated, he told ITAR-TASS and television channel Vesti 24.
Russia first backed the idea in February and has since stepped up its criticism of Assad after first blocking two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning him for the year of bloody violence.
An ICRC spokeswoman in Moscow said the meeting was a part of Kellenberger's broader efforts to get world powers to secure commitments from both sides to put down their arms for a few hours each day.
"The ICRC hopes to see concrete results of such meetings on the ground in the coming days and weeks," Victoria Zotikova told Agence France Presse.
Lavrov leveled some of his strongest criticism of Assad during an appearance before Russian lawmakers last week in which he accused the regime of dragging its feet on reforms and failing at times to follow Moscow's suggestions.
He later accused both the rebels and Assad's forces of "very often using "disproportionate force" in the conflict.
But Lavrov on Saturday also criticized Western powers for being either unwilling or unable to put sufficient pressure on the armed opposition amid growing fears that the violence was escalating out of control.
Kellenberger's visit notably ended without any new public call from Russia for Assad to cooperate more fully with international relief teams.
A brief foreign ministry statement said only that "Russia continues to actively seek a political solution to the Syria crisis... and the provision of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population."
Yet it also added in an unusual nuance that "Moscow has recently noted certain changes in tone in our Western partners' behavior toward Syria -- a display of greater realism on their part."
That comment appeared to acknowledge the West's recent ability to assuage Russia's concerns about possible foreign intervention in Syria -- one of the main factors behind Russia's veto with China of the U.N. resolutions.
Kellenberger for his part said he expressed his fears to Lavrov that much of Syria could soon be engulfed in the type of brutal violence recently seen in the flashpoint city of Homs.
"We fear that the situation that we witnessed in Homs a few weeks ago could be repeated in other places where there are clashes," Kellenberger told ITAR-TASS.
"This is absolutely unacceptable to us."
Meanwhile, Russian media reports said a Russian military unit had arrived in Syria, a development that a United Nations Security Council source told ABC News was "a bomb" certain to have serious repercussions.
The Russian Black Sea fleet's Iman tanker has arrived in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea with an anti-terror squad from the Russian Marines aboard, according to the Interfax news agency.
The Assad regime insists it is fighting a terrorist insurgency.
The Iman replaced another Russian ship "which had been sent to Syria for demonstrating (sic) the Russian presence in the turbulent region and possible evaluation of Russian citizens," the Black Sea Fleet told Interfax.
RIA Novosti, a news outlet with strong ties to the Kremlin, trumpeted the news in a banner headline that appeared only on its Arabic-language website. The Russian embassy in the U.S. and the Russian mission to the U.N. declined to comment, saying they have "no particular information on" the arrival of a Russian anti-terrorism squad to Syria.
Moscow has long enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Assad regime, to which it sells billions of dollars of weapons. In return Russia has maintained a Navy base at Tartus, which gives it access to the Mediterranean.
Last week Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had no plans to send troops to Syria.
"As for the question whether I consider it necessary to confront the United States in Syria and ensure our military presence there … in order to take part in military actions -- no. I believe this would be against Russia's national interests," Lavrov told lawmakers, according to RIA Novosti.
Russia's Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov denied reports that Russian special forces were operating inside Syria. He did say, however, that there are Russian military and technical advisors in the country.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the U.S. government had not heard of the reports of Russian troops in Syria and declined to comment.
|Copyright © 2012 Naharnet.com. All Rights Reserved.||http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/33935|