Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov. — File Photo

DAMASCUS: Russia said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad could leave power as part of a settlement to end bloodshed in Syria, as Damascus agreed to allow relief workers to visit four trouble spots.

“We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process,” Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in Switzerland.

“This issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves,” ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him as saying.

Moscow has been facing mounting pressure to back Assad's departure as a first step in a settlement that would see his inner circle assume command in the interim, based on a US-backed transition in Yemen earlier this year.

Tuesday's statement was one of its most explicit about Assad's position since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to clearly back his rule during a visit to Damascus in February.

It came as Russia and China, which have stalled Western-led moves against Damascus, began talks on ending nearly 15 months of violence that has killed more than 13,500 people, and cost the lives of another 26 people on Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin began talks with President Hu Jintao, a day ahead of a meeting with Hu's likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping.

China's envoy to the United Nations said on Monday that efforts to end the Syrian bloodshed were at a “crossroads,” and that government and opposition forces must halt violence.

Both it and Russia, which have twice used their veto powers to block tougher action against Assad's regime at the UN Security Council, have come under mounting pressure to change their stance since last month's Houla massacre.

China's ambassador Li Baodong said the massacre of at least 108 people, most of them women and children, had dealt a huge blow to UN-Arab envoy Kofi Annan's mediation mission, as Beijing took over the chair of the Security Council for June.

Li told reporters, without signalling any easing in China's opposition to sanctions against Assad: “The political process to solve the Syrian crisis is at a crossroads.”

The Houla massacre “has caused collateral damage to Annan's mediation effort. And also it presents a huge challenge to the international community,” Li said.

Bloodshed has persisted in Syria despite a UN-backed peace plan brokered by Annan that put almost 300 observers on the ground.

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