MOSCOW - Russia dismissed suggestions on Thursday that it was planning to offer political asylum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said two prominent opposition leaders were coming to Moscow for talks next week.
Russia, along with China, has shielded Assad from Western-sponsored U.N. action beyond verbal condemnation of the violence - a stance that Assad's foes say gives him a free hand to pursue his crackdown against protesters.
Last week Russia also watered down an international agreement brokered by U.N. mediator Kofi Annan in Geneva. The deal envisages creating a transitional governing body in Syria to end the bloodshed but leaves open what part Assad might play.
"It (the rumour of Russia granting asylum to Assad) is either an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
Russia has repeatedly said Syrians themselves must determine the fate of their country without any foreign meddling and that all sides of the conflict should engage in dialogue.
On Thursday, Lavrov also said the issue of political asylum for Assad first came up during talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Berlin last month, adding that it was first raised by the German side.
"Our delegation took it as a joke and responded also with a joke: Why don't you, Germans, take Mr Assad if he wants to go somewhere?" Lavrov told a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
"I was very surprised when, during my recent contacts with my foreign colleagues, when we were discussing the Syrian issue, I heard that they are convinced that we will take Assad and thus solve all the Syrian people's problems," Lavrov said.
As soon as the Geneva agreement was clinched, sides immediately disagreed about what it meant for Assad. The plan also lacks a timeline for specific actions aimed at ending the violence.
"We are exploring what possibilities there are, non-military possibilities, political possibilities, to promote and support the work of the Kofi Annan plan," the German foreign minister said.
"It is of great importance that we have Russia on board to a certain extent as part of a political solution. Otherwise from our point of view, it can hardly succeed."
Lavrov also said Abdelbasset Sida, the new Kurdish leader of the main Syrian opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and prominent opposition activist Michel Kilo would visit Moscow for talks next week. He gave no further details.
Shortly after his election to head the SNC earlier in June, Sida urged decisive action by world powers at the United Nations to protect civilians from Assad's crackdown.
Kilo, on the other hand, has in the past spoken out against foreign intervention of the kind seen inLibya, underscoring divisions between Syrian opposition groups.
The divisions - put on display by a brawl at a meeting of Syrian opposition activists in Cairo on Tuesday - have also provided an excuse for world powers wary of intervention to sit on their hands.