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U.S., Russia express hope over Syria

By McClatchy Newspapers

LONDON -- Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart said Friday they would try, by the end of the month, to set a date for another international peace conference on Syria, even as they continued to negotiate a possible solution to the Syrian government's possession of chemical weapons.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed hope that a date for a second peace conference in Geneva, to follow up one held in the Swiss city last year, could be decided in the margins of a U.N. General Assembly meeting to be held at the end of this month.

The first Geneva conference, in June 2012, produced a tentative transition plan for the Syrian government that largely has come to naught as fighting rages between forces of President Bashar Assad and the rebels and others who want to overthrow his regime.

Leaders from around the world have pushed for a second conference, insisting that only a negotiated political settlement can end the civil war, but attempts to convene a sequel have been unsuccessful.

Diplomatic momentum over Syria, however, has received a major boost within the past few days in light of the threat of a U.S.-led airstrike against Damascus to punish it for allegedly using chemical weapons.

Kerry and Lavrov raised the prospect of a second peace conference Friday on the second day of hastily arranged talks, also in Geneva, to hammer out a plan to impound Syria's chemical arsenal, neutralize it and put it out of reach of the government and the anti-Assad rebels.

Western governments remain skeptical of the idea, because of its technical challenges and their suspicion over Assad's sincerity in cooperating. However, they have agreed to pursue it with Russia, the plan's primary sponsor.

A major sticking point is if the disarmament plan can be backed up by force, which the West wants to see but which Russia opposes.

"President Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution with respect to Syria, and we know that Russia is, likewise," Kerry said. "We are working hard to find the common ground to be able to make that happen, and we discussed some of the homework that we both need to do."

Lavrov called on the international community "to design a road which would make sure that this issue is resolved quickly, professionally, as soon as [is] practical."

Meanwhile, in Stockholm on Friday, the head of the U.N. chemical weapons inspection team said he will deliver his report on Syria to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in this weekend.

Speaking by telephone from the Netherlands, Ake Sellstrom told The Associated Press he didn't know exactly when the report would be released publicly.

"It's done," Sellstrom said, "but when to present it is up to the secretary-general."

In a later conversation, Sellstrom said he wasn't quite finished with the report and that what he meant earlier was that it would be done once he delivers it to Ban over the weekend.

"I was being ambiguous on purpose," Sellstrom said.

He would not comment on the report's conclusions.

Sellstrom's inspection team was charged with determining if deadly agents were used in Syria -- not who was responsible.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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