Ban to meet Putin as pressure on Russia over Syria grows

MOSCOW (AFP) - UN chief Ban Ki Moon was to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday as global pressure grows on Moscow to end arms supplies to the Syrian regime and drop its support for President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Ban was to have separate talks with both Mr Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi where the Russian leader has been based for the past week.

The UN leader told Russian news agencies as he entered the first talks with Lavrov that he intended to discuss "the political settlement in Syria," in comments translated into Russian.

The meetings come after French President Francois Hollande upped the pressure on the Kremlin on Thursday by saying more efforts were needed to convince Moscow to "finish with Bashar al-Assad".

Mr Ban's mission and a May 10 visit to Sochi by British Prime Minister David Cameron follow Mr Putin's May 7 talks in Moscow with US Secretary of State John Kerry during which the sides agreed to set up a new round of Syria negotiations within a matter of weeks.

That meeting - now expected to take place in Geneva in early June - hopes to build on a failed June 2012 peace initiative that called for the quick creation of a transitional government but defined no clear role for Assad.

The new talks are meant to include the warring parties for the first time - a difficulty considering some opposition members' refusal to recognise Assad as a negotiating partner.

Moscow is also calling for the inclusion on this occasion of its trading partner Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia as a counterweight.

Russia continues to deliver arms to Syria - the regime's most powerful remaining ally - but claims that it has no real interest in seeing Assad remain in power.

But many continue to express alarm at Russia's decision to supply Syria with various powerful missiles and question how this fits in with Russia's commitment to a negotiated end to the crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Putin in Sochi on Tuesday not to follow through with Russia's reported decision to ship powerful S-300 surface-to-air missiles that can take out fighter jets.

Neither Mr Putin nor Mr Netanyahu spoke about the mooted deliveries after the meeting. Yet Mr Putin's official spokesman Dmitry Peskov later hinted that no real progress had been made.

"The Russian Federation presented its arguments (in favour of the reported deliveries), which are well known," Interfax quoted Mr Peskov as saying on Tuesday.

The New York Times reported for its part on Friday that Russia has also sent the regime a new batch of upgraded Yakhont anti-ship missile systems that make a shipping embargo of Syria much more difficult to enforce.

Mr Peskov on Friday said only that "the Russian Federation has been and remains committed to contractual obligations that it signed in the past."