Russia, US agree joint push for peace in Syria

MOSCOW (AFP) - The United States and Russia on Tuesday agreed to push both warring sides in the Syria conflict to find a negotiated solution and to hold an international conference in search of peace.

Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry held hours of talks with President Vladimir Putin and then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lasting late into the night in a bid to narrow the differences between Moscow and Washington on the conflict.

"We agreed that Russia and the United States will encourage both the Syria government and opposition groups to find a political solution," Mr Lavrov told reporters at a concluding news conference that ended after midnight.

Mr Lavrov added they agreed on the need to hold "as soon as possible" an international conference on Syria to convince both rebels and the regime to accept the terms of the Geneva accord agreed by world powers last June for a peaceful solution in Syria.

He said the conference should take place "if possible by the end of this month." The Geneva agreement, which was reached by world powers on June 30, set out a path toward a transitional government without ever spelling out what President Bashar al-Assad's fate should be.

Mr Kerry said the conference should be held as "soon as is practical." "Its specific work will be to bring members of the government and the opposition together to see how we can implement the language of the communique," said Mr Kerry.

Mr Kerry added: "A negotiated settlement is the essential means to ending the bloodshed in Syria." Mr Lavrov said both the United States and Russia were ready to use all their capacities to bring "the government and opposition to the negotiating table."

Mr Kerry had earlier told Mr Putin in talks lasting over two hours at the Kremlin that his visit was aimed at finding "common ground" with Moscow over Syria.

"The United States really believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria," Mr Kerry told Mr Putin at the talks.

He cited these interests as "stability in the region, not letting extremists create problems in the region and elsewhere." Mr Putin did not specifically address the differences between Washington and Moscow over Syria but said the Kremlin was preparing a response to a message on bilateral ties that President Barack Obama sent in April.

The visit coincides with the first anniversary of Mr Putin's return to the Kremlin for a historic third term on May 7, 2012, which heralded a new chill in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Mr Kerry, who was earlier seen chatting animatedly to Mr Lavrov while walking in the garden of the foreign ministry guesthouse, added he was grateful to Mr Putin for "the significant amount of time he devoted to our discussion".

Mr Russia has long accused the West of worsening the Syria conflict by seeking to topple the Assad regime, and says Moscow is solely interested in seeing a peaceful solution to a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011.

The US and other Western states have in turn accused Russia of failing to use its influence with the regime to halt the bloodshed and keeping up military deliveries to Assad.

Mr Kerry's visit is taking place at a time of particular tension after Israel launched air strikes in Syria which Israeli sources said targeted Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was "especially" concerned by the attacks, warning that the violence threatened neighbouring Lebanon.

There were a host of other issues on the agenda of the talks, including last month's Boston Marathon bombings blamed on two brothers of Chechen descent.

"I'm very happy that our professionals are working together now to work to deal with some of the issues of the bombing that took place in Boston," Mr Kerry told Mr Putin at their meeting.

More contentious dossiers include American missile defence and rows over a ban by Moscow on American adoptions of Russian children and the Russian authorities' harassment of NGOs.