Russia will not shelter Syria's al-Assad
But Moscow would welcome a safe haven elsewhere, minister says
Moscow would welcome any country's offer of a safe haven to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Moscow itself has no intention of giving him shelter if he steps down, Russia's foreign minister says .
Russia has repeatedly used its veto right along with China at the UN 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 whether Moscow could offer a refuge to Assad, Lavrov responded: "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 a flight 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 together to one or two locations from several arsenals across the country to keep them safe amid the rebel onslaught.
"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 centres, unlike the past when they were scattered across the country."
Concerns over chemical weapons
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.
Syria has refused to confirm or deny it has such weapons but is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them.
Lavrov gave no indication that Moscow could change its opposition to sanctions against Assad. He assailed the West for failing to persuade the opposition to sit down for peace talks with the government, saying "the Syrian president's head is more important for them than saving human lives."
Lavrov added that UN 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."
Syria's conflict started in March last year as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. But the bloody crackdown that followed led rebels to take up arms, and the ensuing fighting transformed into a civil war.