MOSCOW - A Russian diplomat said on Monday that Moscow was working with the Syrian authorities to seek an end to violence and the start of talks with their opponents, but stopped short of publicly pressing the government to meet a military withdrawal deadline.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem was expected to arrive in Moscow on Monday and meet his Russian counterpart on Tuesday, the deadline for Syrian government forces to withdraw from cities and towns under mediator Kofi Annan's peace plan.
Moscow is "working actively with Damascus in order to begin a political settlement process in (Syria)," state-run Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying.
Gatilov reiterated Russia's opposition to interference in Syria, where it says any change in the government must result from an internal Syrian political process and not pressure from foreign countries calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad's resignation.
"Attempts to force a solution on Syria from outside will lead only to an escalation of tension. Everything must follow from respect for Syria's sovereignty, and violence must be stopped," Gatilov said, according to Itar-Tass.
Also Monday, China urged the Syrian government and opposition groups to abide by pledges for a ceasefire in the year-old conflict.
"China urges the Syrian government and opposition groups to seize the current critical moment to abide by cease fire and troop withdrawal promises, cooperate with special envoy Annan's mediation efforts to alleviate the current tense situation and facilitate humanitarian assistance, and promote a political solution to the conflict in Syria," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a news briefing.
Russia has been under pressure from Western and Arab nations to use its ties with Syria to help ensure Assad abides by the deal brokered by Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy.
The deal calls on Syria to begin withdrawing its troops from around towns and cities by Tuesday and for a truce to start 48 hours later.
Russia has protected Assad by vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions condemning his government for bloodshed in which the United Nations says its forces have killed more than 9,000 people since a crackdown on protests began in March 2011.
But Russia has championed Annan's mission, backing two UN Security Council statements in its support, and has tried to distance itself from Assad lately in a sign it wants to retain diplomatic clout and prepare for any outcome.
Syria has given post-Soviet Russia its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buying billions of dollars' worth of weapons and hosting a maintenance and supply facility that is Russia's only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union.