Russia says it doesn't mind if Assad stays or steps down

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MOSCOW (AP) -- In an apparent effort to set the stage for transition talks, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Tuesday that Moscow does not consider it a matter of principle that Syrian President Bashar Assad should stay in power.

Asked whether it was crucial for Moscow that Assad stays, Maria Zakharova said on the Ekho Moskvy radio station: "Absolutely not, we've never said that."

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"What we did say is a regime change in Syria could become a local or even regional catastrophe," she said, adding that "only the Syrian people can decide the president's fate."

Russia is believed to be Assad's strongest backer and has previously balked at the West's suggestions that the Syrian president should be ousted.

Russia in September began carrying out air strikes at Islamic State fighters in Syria at Assad's request.

Earlier on Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian news agencies that Moscow is aiming to host a round of talks between Syrian officials and opposition leaders next week.

Bogdanov said the Syrian government has agreed to participate, but that it is unclear which opposition groups might come. He did not give a specific date for the proposed talks.

The talks are expected to be discussed Wednesday at a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.N. Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura, Bogdanov said.

Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow last month, which was viewed as a signal that Russia ultimately seeks a political settlement after weeks of heavy airstrikes in Syria, although the terms of such an arrangement are uncertain.

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