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Russia urges Syria to cede control of chemical arms

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shows the way to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualem during a meeting in Moscow September 9, 20
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) shows the way to his Syrian counterpart Walid Moualem during a meeting in Moscow September 9, 20

By Gabriela Baczynska and Alexei Anishchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia urged Syria on Monday to put its chemical weapons under international control in the hope that this would avert U.S. military strikes over an alleged gas attack, and President Bashar al-Assad's government said it welcomed the proposal.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he conveyed the idea to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem at talks in Moscow and that Russia expected "a quick and, I hope, a positive answer."

"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in (Syria) makes it possible to avoid strikes, then we will immediately get to work with Damascus," Lavrov said.

Moualem later told reporters Syria welcomed the proposal. He stopped short of saying explicitly that it agreed to carry it out, but seemed to indicate it would if it meant the United Sates would not launch military strikes.

"I state that the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people," Moualem said through an interpreter.

Russia, which is Syria's most powerful ally, appeared to seize on an idea voiced by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, even though the American swiftly made clear he had not been making a serious offer.

Kerry was asked by a reporter in London whether there was anything Assad's government could do or offer to stop a military strike.

Kerry answered: "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."

The State Department later said Kerry had been making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility of Assad turning over chemical weapons, which the Syrian president denies his forces used in an August 21 poison gas attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

But Russia, which opposes U.S. strikes and has blamed rebels for the chemical attack, appeared to have called Kerry's bluff.

Lavrov said that in addition to putting its chemical arsenal under international control, Russia was urging Syria to eventually destroy the weapons and become a full member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The Russian proposal appeared to be aimed, at least in part, at putting the United States under pressure to show that its concerns about chemical weapons are genuine and it is not just using the August 21 attack as a pretext for military intervention.

At a news conference with Lavrov following their talks earlier on Monday, Moualem questioned the U.S. motives and said "diplomatic channels to resolve this issue have not been exhausted". He did not elaborate.

Moualem accused Obama of backing Islamist extremists, apparently drawing comparisons with the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

"We are asking ourselves how Obama can ... support those who in their time blew up the World Trade Center in New York," Moualem told the news conference with Lavrov after their talks.

Moualem also conveyed Assad's gratitude for support from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed Russia's case against military strikes on Syria at a G20 summit attended by Obama in Russia last week.

Russia has been Assad's most influential supporter during the conflict, supplying weapons and, with China, blocking three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mike Collett-White)

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