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Russia, U.S. plot peace talks for Syria

The United States and Russia are 'finding this common ground' on the conflict in Syria, said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The two countries are now preparing for a peace conference in Geneva in June, which Syria is expected to attend.  

By Patricia ZengerleReuters / May 15, 2013

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shake hands during a joint press conference in Moscow , Russia, May 8, 2013. Russian and U.S. officials are working together to broker peace in the beleaguered Middle Eastern nation of Syria.

AP Photo/Misha Japaridze

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KIRUNA, Sweden

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday they believed they could pull off peace talks on Syria, where their nations back opposing sides in a war that may have cost 120,000 lives.

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Differences between Russia, a main ally of President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States, which supports those trying to topple him, have long obstructed U.N. action on the turmoil that has convulsed Syria for more than two years.

But last week Kerry and Lavrov announced plans to hold a peace conference now expected to take place in Geneva in June.

"Both of us are ... very, very hopeful that within a short period of time, pieces will come together so that the world, hopefully, will be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment," Kerry said at a news conference after meeting Lavrov in Kiruna, Sweden.

"I would very much share the assessments just presented by John," Lavrov said.

He said Moscow and Washington were trying to mobilize support for the negotiations from Syria's government and opposition, as well as other countries concerned.

Kerry said the peace drive was based on a deal that has stayed a dead letter since it was announced in Geneva in June 2012 for the creation of a transitional government in Syria "with full executive authority by mutual consent" - ambiguous wording that deliberately left Assad's future role unclear. 

'Working together'

"That's what we're working toward and I don't think it's insignificant that at this moment in time we are finding this common ground and working closely together," Kerry said.

Syrian revolutionaries have previously demanded Assad's removal before any talks on the country's future. The main Western-backed opposition coalition is due to meet in Istanbul to consider whether to attend the new Geneva talks.

A Western diplomat in Paris said the Friends of Syria, an anti-Assad group of mainly Western and Arab countries, would meet in Jordan on May 22 to discuss the U.S.-Russian initiative. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Kerry planned to attend the meeting in Jordan but said he could not confirm the date.

Kerry and Lavrov, who met for an hour on Tuesday night on the sidelines of a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, emphasised they were working in tandem on the Syria plan.

Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said on Tuesday that Assad's government, fighting an insurgency that threatens to draw in Syria's neighbours, wanted specifics on the proposed conference before it decides whether to participate.

Kerry and Lavrov both said they expected Syria to attend.

Despite a push from some U.S. lawmakers for Washington to provide military aid to Syria's rebels - and to consider some military involvement such as a no-fly zone - President Barack Obama's administration wants a peaceful resolution to the war.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said on Tuesday that at least 94,000 people had been killed in the Syrian conflict, but that the real death toll was likely to be as high as 120,000.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Bill Trott)

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