Putin: Let Syrians agree among themselves how they should live next
MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday denied propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and stressed that Moscow was only seeking to avert a perpetual civil war.
"What is our position? Not to leave Assad's regime in power at any price, but to first (let the Syrians) agree among themselves how they should live next," Putin told a major Moscow press briefing.
"Only then should we start looking at ways to change the existing order."
Putin argued that Russia's call for dialogue was meant to avert "an endless civil war" between the armed rebels and government forces who still control most of the capital Damascus.
"We want to avoid (Syrian) disintegration," said Putin.
Putin's comments came less than a week after Russia's chief Middle East envoy said it appeared that Assad would not be able to fend off the rebels much longer.
The foreign ministry later denied an official shift in Russia's position toward Assad and noted that Moscow still recognised the Assad regime.
Russia remains one of Syrian regime's last major ally and has shielded Assad from UN sanctions aimed at punishing him for his use of heavy force against rebels.
Nephews of Syria vice president arrested
Two nephews of Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Sharaa have been arrested along with five of their friends over their support for democratic change, a monitoring group said on Thursday.
"University professor Zaydun Zohbi, 38, and his brother Suhaib, who are nephews of Faruq al-Sharaa, and five of their friends, activists in favour of peaceful change in Syria, were arrested at a cafe on December 15 by members of the military intelligence," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, which depends on a large network of activists and doctors across Syria for its information, demanded their "immediate" release and that of "all civilian and military prisoners".
The arrests come after the vice president said in comments published on Monday that he favours a negotiated solution to Syria's bloody uprising, a position at odds with President Bashar al-Assad.
Sharaa, the most prominent Sunni Muslim official in the Alawite minority dominated regime of Assad, also told the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar that a clear winner was unlikely to emerge from the conflict.
The Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria, which is close to the opposition, says there are nearly 35,000 people held in jails across the war-torn country by the Assad regime.
Sharaa, 74, has served the regime for decades, both under Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez, but has been seen in public only a few times since the uprising erupted in March 2011.