Russia would back North Korea talks in Geneva: Lavrov

NEUCHATEL, Switzerland (AP) - Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday his nation would welcome a fresh round of talks on Swiss soil over North Korea's nuclear programme, if all the parties were to agree.

Flanked by his Swiss counterpart at a news conference, Mr Lavrov supported renewed talks in Geneva, if Pyongyang were to agree to hold discussions with Russia, Japan, South Korea, the United States and China.

But both officials made clear there was no such general agreement.

"If we can re-establish that, Russia would, of course, support it," Mr Lavrov, who spoke in Russian, said in response to a question.

North Korea agreed in principle in 2005 to scrap its nuclear programme, including a presumed small stockpile of weapons, in return for aid and diplomatic incentives from other members of the six-party talks. But Pyongyang walked out of talks in 2009 and later conducted more nuclear tests.

Recently, North Korea warned it has weapons "on standby" and aimed at its foes if provoked, but has not revealed specific plans to fire a missile or carry out another nuclear test.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who spoke in French, said his nation had offered to host such talks "but, of course, that should be agreed by all parties and that is not the case at the moment".

Switzerland also has offered to attempt to defuse the crisis on the Korean Peninsula by mediating between the United States and North Korea. Switzerland and Sweden help monitor the demilitarised zone that was created after the Korean War ended in 1953, with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula still technically at war.

Switzerland brokers relations between the US and Iran, and is home to the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva, where peace talks and other negotiations are held regularly.

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un reportedly attended school for several years in Switzerland, which also has maintained a humanitarian aid office in North Korea.

On Syria, Mr Lavrov said Russia would support an international war crimes prosecution - eventually.

"Without any doubt, this aspect must be taken into account in this complex process, in the search for a final settlement for the future of national reconciliation in Syria," he said. "But at this stage, I think the first priority is to end the violence as fast as possible to avoid more civilian deaths."

Russia has been Syrian President Bashar Assad's staunch ally, supplying Damascus with weapons and shielding the regime from tougher UN sanctions.

"And these calls for not allowing impunity are totally correct," Mr Lavrov added, "but what I notice is that certain people try to use that to slow down discussions and have the reconciliation process cancelled, which will only lead to more deaths."

Mr Lavrov also warned the United States against naming Russians accused of human rights abuses, who are to be targeted for US financial sanctions and visa bans under a new law dubbed the Magnitsky Act. The law was named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested in 2008 for tax evasion after accusing Russian police officials of stealing US$230 million (S$285 million) in tax rebates.

Mr Magnitsky was repeatedly beaten and denied medical treatment in prison, then died in 2009 of untreated pancreatitis.

Mr Lavrov hinted that Russia has its own list of US officials that would be similarly sanctioned and would release those names in retaliation, along with using the so-called Magnitsky List to possibly block future cooperation on security issues.

"Of course, Moscow will react and our American partners know about that very well," he told reporters. "And given the circumstances, I don't think they've chosen very good timing, since the American national security adviser is coming to Moscow to bring President Obama's message with his vision for the prospects of our broader cooperation."

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