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Russia takes Syria lead after Assad’s surprise Moscow visit

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Moscow: Russia seized the initiative over Syria after a diplomatic flurry that saw it host President Bashar al-Assad on his first foreign visit since 2011 and schedule talks involving the war’s key players.

Assad met Vladimir Putin and thanked his Russian counterpart for launching air strikes against his opponents in Syria, with both leaders also agreeing during talks late Tuesday that political steps must follow military operations.

Moscow announced afterwards that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would meet tomorrow with US Secretary of State John Kerry and their Turkish and Saudi counterparts to discuss Syria.

The talks between Putin and Assad focused mainly on military developments, with the Russian president pledging ongoing support but also urging a political solution to end the war, the Kremlin said.

Assad, who last visited Russia in 2008, had told Putin that the three-week-old Russian air war — which has prompted an outcry in the West — had helped to stop the spread of “terrorism” in his country.

The strikes are reported to have killed 370 people so far, a third of them civilians.

Russia says the campaign targets the extremist Islamic State group and others it describes as “terrorists”.

But rebels and the West accuse Moscow of seeking to prop up Assad and of striking moderate and Islamist opposition forces rather than just Islamic State jihadists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday at least 12 people including medical staff were killed when Russian warplanes struck a field hospital in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The clinic was run by the Syrian-American Medical Society, whose staff confirmed Tuesday’s strikes had “severely damaged” the facility.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assad’s “working visit” was at the invitation of the Kremlin. The Syrian presidency said yesterday that Assad had returned to Damascus.

Russia’s foreign and defence ministers also participated in a meeting between the two leaders.

Putin said Russia was ready to do all it could to help secure peace in Syria, which has been ravaged by the conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

More than 250,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes, sparking a mass migration of around four million refugees.

“We are ready to make our contribution not only during armed hostilities in the fight against terrorism but also during a political process,” Putin said.