Russia welcomes any offer of refuge for Assad

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BEIRUT -- Russia would welcome any country's offer of safe haven for Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has no plans to make one of its own, Moscow's foreign minister said in the latest comments to suggest a growing distance between the two allies.

Sergey Lavrov's remarks on Friday night were among the clearest signs yet that Russia could be preparing for a Syria without Mr. Assad, as rebel pressure on the embattled leader intensifies. Over the past four weeks, fighting has reached Damascus, his seat of power, and rebels have captured a string of military bases.

Up to now, Russia has vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Syria's government to stop the violence that has killed more than 40,000 people over the past 21 months. While Russian leaders have given no concrete signs that stance has changed, their tone has shifted as rebels advance on the outskirts of the capital.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than ever from the Syrian president, saying Russia does not seek to protect him and suggesting his regime is growing weaker.

Speaking to reporters late Friday, Mr. Lavrov reiterated Moscow's position that "it doesn't invite President Assad here," although he said other countries had asked Russia to convey their offer of safe passage to Mr. Assad.

While he would not name the countries, Mr. Lavrov said Russia had responded by telling them to go directly to the Syrian leader.

"If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!" Mr. Lavrov said 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."

Syria's conflict started in March last year as an uprising against Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. But the bloody crackdown that followed led rebels to take up arms, and the fighting transformed into a civil war.

The regime has come under added condemnation in recent weeks as Western officials raise concerns Mr. Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in an act of desperation.

Syria refuses to confirm or deny if 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.

Mr. Lavrov said the Syrian government has pulled 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 centers, unlike the past when they were scattered across the country."

The conflict's sectarian dimension looked set to deepen at the weekend, as rebels threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in a central region if residents do not "evict" government troops they say are using the towns as a base to attack nearby areas.

A video released by rebels showed Rashid Abul-Fidaa, who identified himself as the commander of the Ansar Brigade for Hama province, calling on locals in Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh to rise up against Mr. Assad's forces or prepare for an assault.

He also accused regime forces of taking positions in the two towns in order to "incite sectarian strife" between Christians and the predominantly Sunni opposition. Mr. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the activist group which reported the rebel ultimatum on Saturday, said such an attack by rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's population, say they are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.

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