Russia steps up UN battle over Syria

Russia on Friday stepped up UN Security Council hostilities over Syria by proposing a resolution without sanctions to rival a Europe-US call to directly target President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia on Friday stepped up UN Security Council hostilities over Syria by proposing a resolution without sanctions to rival a Europe-US call to directly target President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia's ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused the Western allies of "stirring up the opposition" in Syria with their call for an assets freeze on Assad and his entourage and an arms embargo against Damascus.

The rival resolutions -- by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and the United States on one side, and Russia on the other -- were both put forward Friday for a potential vote by the 15-nation Security Council.

Russia has indicated that it is ready to veto any resolution that calls for sanctions. The Western countries, which have called on Assad to stand down, say they will not accept anything less than sanctions.

One Western diplomat called the Russian resolution "a maneuver to hijack the negotiations."

The stage is now set for intense talks between the Europe-US alliance and Russia and China on the final version of any Security Council action.

Russia has insisted that the time is not yet right for punitive measures in response to the crackdown which the UN says has cost 2,200 civilian lives. The Russian and Chinese envoys boycotted informal talks on the European draft resolution on sanctions.

Assad leads a list of 23 individuals and four entities named in the European proposal who would be subject to an asset freeze. The president is not on the 22-name list for a proposed travel ban however. It also calls for a total arms embargo.

Russia's resolution, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, "calls upon the Syrian government to expedite the implementation of reforms" but also "urges the Syrian opposition to engage in political dialogue" with the Assad regime.

The Security Council should be "pushing the parties in the right direction," said Churkin, not proposing "something that is stirring up the opposition as we believe is the case with the draft resolution" by Europe and the United States.

Philip Parham, Britain's deputy UN ambassador, said Western nations had "big problems" with the Russian proposal which he added "stepped back" from a Council statement agreed on August 3 which condemned the violence in Syria.

Miguel Berger, Germany's deputy ambassador, said Russia's "proposal is far away from what we would like to see in such a resolution."

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian resolution "puts any violence by demonstrators on the same level as the government repression. It is very far from anything we could accept."

Much will now depend on whether Europe and the United States can persuade India, Brazil or South Africa to back their resolution.

The three emerging powers remain furious over NATO's use of UN resolutions on Libya to justify their campaign against Moamer Kadhafi and say that a resolution on Syria could lead down the same military path. The Western nations insist however that there can be no military solution in Syria.

The United Nations stepped up pressure on Assad with a humanitarian mission to Syria concluding there is an "urgent need" to protect civilians against security forces.

The mission was the first allowed into Syria since Assad's crackdown started in March.

"The mission concluded that although there is no countrywide humanitarian crisis, there is an urgent need to protect civilians from the excessive use of force," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.

Haq said the constant presence of government officials limited the mission's ability to "fully and independently assess the situation."

"The people it was able to talk to in areas of previous or ongoing unrest said they felt extremely intimidated and under constant threat," he said

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