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Updated Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 05:01 PM

Russia says it won't offer refuge to Assad

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Russia's foreign minister says Moscow would welcome any country's offer of a safe haven to Syrian President Bashar Assad but underlined that Moscow itself has no intention of giving him shelter if he steps down.

Russia has repeatedly used its veto right along with China at the U.N. Security Council to protect its old ally from international sanctions, but it has increasingly sought to distance itself from Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters late Friday that countries in the region he wouldn't name publicly had asked Russia to convey their offer of a safe passage to Assad. He said that Russia responded by telling them to go directly to Assad: "We replied: 'What do we have to do with it? If you have such plans, you go straight to him.' "

Asked if Moscow could offer a refuge to Assad, Lavrov responded that "Russia has publicly said that it doesn't invite President Assad."

"If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!" Lavrov told reporters on board a plane returning from Brussels where he attended a Russia-EU summit. "We would be the first to cross ourselves and say: "Thank God, the carnage is over! If it indeed ends the carnage, which is far from certain."

Lavrov also said the Syrian government has moved its chemical weapons to one or two locations from several arsenals across the country.

"According to the information we have, as well as the data of the U.S. and European special services, the government is doing everything to secure it," he said. "The Syrian government has concentrated the stockpiles in one or two centers, unlike the past when they were scattered across the country."

U.S. intelligence says the regime may be readying chemical weapons and could be desperate enough to use them. Both Israel and the U.S. have also expressed concerns they could fall into militant hands if the regime crumbles.

Lavrov added that the U.N. peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would visit Moscow for talks before the year's end.

He said that Moscow has also invited the revamped Syrian opposition leadership to visit.

"We are ready to honestly explain that the emphasis on a military solution and the dismantling of the state institutions is disastrous for the country," he said. "Listen, there will be no winner in this war."


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