NEW: "Escalating violence" shows us "we urgently need bolder steps," U.N. leader says
NEW: Protesters decry al-Assad, urge action in Syria and in front of U.N. headquarters
A U.N. council authorizes an independent probe into last week's massacre in Houla
Russia's president urges the world to be careful intervening in Syria
Accused by the top U.S. diplomat of “propping up the regime” of Syria’s embattled president, Russian officials struck back Friday by denying arms sales to Damascus and claiming international efforts may have fostered instability and violence.
A day after making those accusatory remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday hammered home her claim that Moscow is helping its longtime ally in Damascus through a “very consistent arms trade” that “has strengthened (President Bashar al-Assad’s) regime.”
“The fact that Russia has continued to sustain this trade in the face of efforts by the international community to impose sanctions and to prevent further arms flowing to the Assad regime, and in particular the Syrian military, has raised serious concerns on our part,” Clinton said from Oslo, Norway.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded hours later by flatly denying “any trading connections (or) military” with its longtime ally Syria.
“The only thing that concerns us in (Syria) is the possibility of radicalization of the situation, the situation getting out of control and the deaths of civilians,” Putin said from France, after meeting new French President Francois Hollande.
“Our aim is to bring the conflict to peace. We are not dividing them into ours and not ours.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman A.K. Lukashevich earlier Friday spoke even more forcefully, asserting that some international efforts – including threats of military intervention – have exacerbated the crisis, pushing Syria closer to civil war and making it easier for “strong religious elements (to) come to the forefront.”
“They still give preference to their own agenda, where the change of the ruling regime in Damascus remains the main point,” the spokesman said of unnamed “international and regional players” calling for al-Assad’s ouster.
They include Hollande who, standing next to Putin, on Friday accused the Syrian president of acting “in an unacceptable and intolerable way” and said he must go.
“There will only be an exit possible with the departure of Bashar al-Assad,” he said.
Speaking earlier Friday in Berlin after meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said that Russia “will maintain contact with President Assad and the leadership of Syria and with regional countries, Arab countries … in order to find a political solution.”
He later warned against the international community acting rashly, especially militarily.
“What happened in Libya and Iraq? … Have they become safer and better? Where are they moving? Is there an answer? Nobody has it as of yet,” Putin said from France. “That’s why we’re proposing, at least in Syria, to act carefully.”
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman also weighed in on last week’s massacre in the Syrian city of Houla.
Calling it “a barbaric crime (that deserves) an extremely severe punishment,” he said the identity of the perpetrators hasn’t been determined yet – though the U.N. Human Rights Council has noted preliminary reports of government involvement.
Lukashevich alluded to Moscow’s concerns that outside forces may be behind such attacks and pointed to the Syrian government’s investigation that found “this crime was a well-planned act on behalf of militants with the aim of torpedoing efforts to achieve a political settlement.”
“The tragedy in Houla has shown what may result from financial aid to militants, smuggling in modern armament systems for them, recruiting foreign mercenaries and flirting with extremists of all kinds,” the Russian spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Council on Friday authorized the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria – which has issued ongoing reports about violence in the country – to conduct a robust probe into the Houla killings, said council spokesman Rupert Colville.
Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, 41 countries voted for the resolution while Russia, China and Cuba voted against it. Russia and China have blocked tough U.N. Security Council targeting al-Assad’s government.