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Putin does not rule out granting Syria's Assad asylum

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image captionAchieving stability and security in Syria is the only way to ensure Syrians don't flee to Europe, Mr Putin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not ruled out granting political asylum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time ally.

When asked by a German magazine if he would shelter Mr Assad, he said it was premature to discuss the issue.

But he added that Russia had granted asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden, "which was far more difficult than to do the same for Mr Assad".

Mr Putin said Syria first needed political reform.

He said the aim in Syria would be to work towards a new constitution: "It is a complicated process.

"Then, early presidential and parliamentary elections should be held, based on the new constitution. It is the Syrian people themselves who must decide who should run their country and how.

"This is the only way to achieve stability and security, to create conditions for economic growth and prosperity, so that people can live in their own homes, in their homeland, rather than flee to Europe."

image copyrightAP
image captionRussian has been supporting President Assad's army as well as the armed opposition in Syria

Mr Putin launched a bombing campaign in the war-torn country in September to support President Assad's army.

Though Mr Assad had made "many mistakes" since the conflict began in 2011, he said, the fighting "would never have escalated to such a degree if it had not been supported from abroad through supplying money, weapons and fighters. Tragically, it is civilians who suffer in such conflicts".

He also said it was not Mr Assad's goal to destroy his country's population: "He is fighting those who rose up against him with deadly force."

Mr Putin said he did not want to see a scenario like that in Libya or Iraq to be repeated in Syria.

"In my view, no effort should be spared in strengthening legitimate governments in the region's countries," he said. "That also applies to Syria."

Mr Putin spoke in the second half of an interview with German newspaper Bild, which was published in English by the Kremlin on 12 January.

The first part of the interview was published on 11 January.

US 'backtracking'

In Paris, Syria's opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said the US had backtracked on its position over Syria, softening its stance to accommodate Russia over President Assad.

"The Russians and Americans did not cite Assad [during the negotiations] and did not talk about his departure and that is clear backtracking," he said.

"When [US President Barack] Obama said he [Bashar al-Assad] had no legitimacy, [US Secretary of State John] Kerry was making concessions."

This, he said, would make it difficult for the opposition to attend peace talks due to be held in Geneva at the end of the month.

A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December set out a two-year roadmap for peace talks but did not address the issue of what would happen to the Syrian president.

Mr Hijab was chosen in December as co-ordinator of the opposition negotiating body to lead future Syria talks. He is a former prime minister under President Assad who defected to the opposition in 2012.

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