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Originally published Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 4:19 AM

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Russia backtracks on statement about Assad's fall

Russia issued a clumsy denial Friday of a statement from its point man on Syria, who said a day earlier that Syrian President Bashad Assad is losing control of the country. The foreign ministry insisted it is not changing its stance on the embattled Syrian regime.

Associated Press

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MOSCOW —

Russia issued a clumsy denial Friday of a statement from its point man on Syria, who said a day earlier that Syrian President Bashad Assad is losing control of the country. The foreign ministry insisted it is not changing its stance on the embattled Syrian regime.

Russia's explanation - that the official was characterizing the opinion of the Syrian opposition rather than stating Russia's position - did not jibe with the words of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who was quoted by all three top Russian news agencies as saying Thursday: "there is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," and adding that "an opposition victory can't be excluded."

The Foreign Ministry insisted in a statement Friday that Bogdanov was referring only to the claims of the "Syrian opposition and its foreign sponsors forecasting their quick victory over the regime in Damascus."

"In that context, Bogdanov again confirmed Russia's principled stance that a political settlement in Syria has no alternative," the ministry's spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said in the statement.

Bogdanov was speaking before the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory body. His statement quoted by Russian news agencies marked the first official acknowledgment from Moscow that Assad's regime may fall.

It was certain to be seen as a betrayal by the Syrian ruler, further eroding his grip on power amid opposition successes on the ground and recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and other leading world powers. On Friday, European Union leaders planned to express strong support for a recently formed coalition of opposition groups, but stop short of calling on member states to offer diplomatic recognition.

While Bogdanov's statement seemed to signal an attempt to begin positioning itself for Assad's eventual defeat, the Foreign Ministry's backtracking on that clearly indicated that Russia has no intention yet to end backing its ally.

Bogdanov's comments were quoted verbatim by state-owned Russian news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-Tass, and also by Interfax. The Foreign Ministry on Thursday turned down the AP's interview request.

Facing questions about Bogdanov's statement during Friday's briefing, Lukashevich insisted that there has been no shift in the Russian position on Syria. He said that Moscow is continuing to call for a political dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition on the basis of the agreement reached at an international conference in Geneva in June.

"Our only goal is to end violence in Syria as quickly as possible, start a dialogue between the Syrians, between the government and the opposition and work out a formula for advancing a political process," Lukashevich said. "There hasn't been and there won't be any retraction from our principled line on the Syrian affairs."

The ministry's denial came about 22 hours later, a long delay after the minister's remarks were reported by Russian and international media and drew worldwide reaction.

The U.S. quickly commended Russia Thursday for "waking up to the reality" by acknowledging the Syrian regime's impending fall, but Lukashevich lashed back at the remarks, saying that "we haven't fallen asleep."

"We haven't changed our position and we won't," he said.

Asked about plans to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from Syria mentioned by Bogdanov, Lukashevich answered evasively that Russia is prepared for any possible developments, but refrained from any specifics.

"We have relevant plans for any difficult situation, and they are being constantly adapted to the rapidly changing situation," he said. "Especially in Syria, where we are seeing conditions for ... our diplomats and compatriots becoming increasingly difficult, so naturally we have plans."

Russia has joined with China at the United Nations Security Council to veto three resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on Assad's regime over its bloody crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011. Moscow also has continued to provide the Syrian government with weapons despite strong international protests.

Asked if Beijing also foresees Assad's demise and whether it plans to evacuate its citizens in Syria, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it would take unspecified steps to protect Chinese nationals and appealed anew for a ceasefire and for a negotiated political transition.

"China is deeply worried about the continuing violent conflict in Syria and always believes that a diplomatic settlement to the Syrian issue is the only way out and also serves the shared interest of the international community," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily media briefing.

At an EU summit of heads of state and government, a draft document said EU leaders will endorse further contacts with the Syrian opposition coalition. The head of the body, moderate cleric Mouaz al-Khatib, briefed EU foreign ministers Monday in Brussels on the situation in the war-wracked nation.

"We must now set ourselves the objective of forcing Bashar Assad to leave as quickly as possible," French President Francois Hollande said Friday on his way into the summit.

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Charles Hutzler in Beijing and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.

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