MOSCOW (AP) — Syria on Monday quickly welcomed a call from Russia, its close ally, to place Syrian chemical arsenals under international control, then destroy them to avert a U.S. strike, but did not offer a time frame or any other specifics.
The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared to mean that diplomatic efforts to end Syria's 2 ½-year civil war were gaining momentum. But it remained to be seen whether it represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to buy more time to prepare for a U.S. military attack.
"Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people," al-Moallem said during a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
However, al-Moallem, would not give any further details in his brief statement and didn't take any questions from reporters.
Russia's proposal confirmed for the first time from Syria's most important international ally that the Syrian government possesses chemical weapons, and al-Moallem's welcome was a tacit acknowledgment. Syria's Foreign Ministry last year retracted a threat to use chemical weapons, saying it was not acknowledging that it had them.
Moallem's statement came a few hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Assad could resolve the crisis surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons by his forces by surrendering control of "every single bit" of his arsenal to the international community by the end of the week.
Also Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to immediately agree to transfer chemical weapons and chemical precursors to a safe place within the country for international destruction. Ban said he will also propose to the Security Council that it unite and demand an immediate chemical weapons transfer should U.N. inspectors conclude that such weapons were used in an attack Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Lavrov's proposal "deserves close examination" but the chemical weapons would have to be placed under international control in a short time and those responsible for "the chemical massacre" must be punished.
Al-Moallem and Lavrov didn't make any immediate reference to Kerry's statement when they spoke to the media after their talks, but a few hours later Lavrov went before cameras to say that Moscow would urge Syria to quickly place its chemical weapons under international control and then dismantle it.
Lavrov, who held talks with al-Moallem in Moscow earlier in the day, said he expected a quick positive answer from Damascus.
"If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus," Lavrov said.
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