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Russia says it's ready to meet with Syrian opposition coalition

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MOSCOW - Russia's foreign minister says Moscow has proposed talks with the main Syrian opposition coalition, despite Russia's previous criticism of Western countries for recognizing the group.

Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Friday that Russia has contacted the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces through the Russian Embassy in Egypt and "we expressed readiness to conduct a meeting" with coalition leader Mouaz al-Khatib.

The statement comes in the wake of comments by officials, including President Vladimir Putin, that suggest Russia is resigned to its longtime ally Syrian President Bashar Assad losing power.

The opposition coalition was formed in November and recognized by Western countries as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. Russia has criticized such recognition as running counter to agreements to seek political transition in Syria.

Although Moscow's approach to the Syrian National Coalition falls short of the formal recognition accorded by Western countries, it acknowledges the group's significance. Russia previously had held talks with more marginal opposition factions.

Throughout the 21-month-old revolt in Syria, in which more than 40,000 people are estimated to have died, Russia has opposed international intervention and called for the crisis to be settled by talks. Russia has blocked attempts in the U.N. Security Council to step up pressure on Assad, but claims the moves were not aimed at propping up his regime.

Under the leadership of Assad and previously his father, Syria has been a longtime ally of Russia, hosting Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union and remaining a significant customer for Russia's arms industry.

But Russia appears to be slowly distancing itself from Assad. Putin last week said that Russia is "not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime" and "undoubtedly there is a call for changes."

Lavrov, speaking after a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Mohamed Kamel Amr, said Russia is also urging Assad's regime to make efforts toward a political settlement.

In a meeting Thursday with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, "We urged the Syrian leadership to make concrete to the maximum extent their stated readiness for dialogue with the opposition," Lavrov said.

U.N. envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is to hold talks with Lavrov on Saturday in Moscow.

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