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Arabs urge Russia to back Syria peace plan

By Yasmine Saleh and Edmund Blair

CAIRO (Reuters) - Gulf Arabs told Russia in blunt language on Saturday its failure to take a tough line on Syria had allowed killing to continue and urged Moscow to back an Arab peace effort that includes a call for Russian ally President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

Qatar, which with Saudi Arabia has led efforts to isolate Assad, also told Arab ministers in Cairo and the Russian foreign minister who joined them, it was time to recognize the exiled Syrian National Council as Syria's legitimate representative.

Arabs and Western states have until now held off from such a step, in part because diplomats have said the group has not always shown a united front and it was not clear whether it could command the support of protesters on the streets of Syria.

Sergei Lavrov, addressing the meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, gave no indication that Moscow's position had shifted. He told Arabs that Russia was not protecting Assad but said no one side could be blamed for the violence.

"We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world's patience and our patience has run out, as has the time for silence about its practices," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said in an opening address.

Arabs, particularly Gulf states who are broadly opposed to Syria's alliance with their regional rival Iran, were frustrated by Russia's veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution based on an Arab peace plan. China also vetoed it.

The plan called for ending violence and for Assad to hand powers to a deputy so talks with the opposition could start.

Moscow and Beijing have, however, backed a Security Council resolution expressing "deep disappointment" at Syria's failure to allow the U.N. humanitarian aid chief to visit Syria.

'LICENCE TO EXTEND BRUTALITY'

"We must stop issuing hollow resolutions and taking spineless positions," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in a speech addressing Arab ministers and Lavrov, who stayed on the auditorium podium after addressing ministers.

"The position of those countries which thwarted the U.N. Security Council resolution and voted against the resolution of the General Assembly gave the Syrian regime a license to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people," He added.

Russia and the Arab ministers said they agreed on five points in Cairo, namely the need to end violence "from any source", the need for unbiased monitoring, opposition to foreign intervention, delivering humanitarian aid and supporting the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan.

Syrian opposition official Abdel Baset Seda told Reuters the points in the joint statement would not resolve the crisis.

"The only way for the Syrian crisis to end is by a full implementation of the Arab peace plan that includes the call on Bashar al-Assad to hand over powers," he said from Turkey where he was attending a meeting of the Syrian opposition.

After the Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian authorities was vetoed, the U.N. General Assembly voted to back a similar decision. But such steps are not binding.

Lavrov told ministers Russia "is not protecting any regime. The most urgent task is to end all violence." He also said Russia was sticking to its principle of not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.

Moscow, a long-standing ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has vetoed two U.N. resolutions, saying they were biased. It says both the government and rebels should be blamed for the violence that has killed thousands of people.

Responding to Lavrov, Qatar's minister said a ceasefire was not enough and said those responsible for violence should be held to account. He also said the media and aid must be allowed into Syria and prisoners detained in the protests should be freed, listing points laid out in the Arab plan.

'SELF-DEFENCE'

Sheikh Hamad also indicated the rebels' actions could not be equated with that of the authorities.

"There are no armed gangs, the systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months. After that the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labeled them armed gangs," the Qatari said.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have called for arming the rebels so they can defend themselves against Syrian troops, tanks and heavy weapons. Some other Arabs have been wary such a step will plunge Syria into a full-scale civil war.

In a fresh move to pressure Syria, Sheikh Hamad said: "Here we call for the recognition of the Syrian National Council as the Syrian people's legitimate representative."

He urged Assad's opponents to "rise above their differences and merge into one voice that expresses the aspirations of their people so that they can face the tyranny of the regime."

Although Qatar discussed recognizing with Arab ministers charged with following the Syrian crisis, an Arab League source said the issue would continue to be discussed and "there has been no agreement on the issue" among the Arab ministers.

"The time has come to go by the suggestion calling for Arab-international forces to be sent to Syria," Sheikh Hamad said, which an Arab League official said was a reference to the League's earlier call for a U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force.

Russia and China have so far shielded Damascus from its Western and Arab critics. A new U.N. Security Council resolution has been drawn up by the United States and is under discussion.

Lavrov told ministers there was a "chance" that agreement on the resolution could reached if all parties were guided by a wish to end fighting rather than "the desire to support the opposition armed groups to win the battle in the cities."

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said discussions were also ongoing with China to press Beijing to change tack on Syria.

The Arab ministers were also expected to discuss Israeli air strikes that killed 10 militants in the Gaza Strip on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, Ayman Samir and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair)

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