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Only Syrians can decide their president's fate, says Russia

Russia does not consider it a matter of principle that Syrian president Bashar Assad should stay in power, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman has said.

Asked whether it was crucial for Moscow that Assad stays, Maria Zakharova said: "Absolutely not, we've never said that."

"What we did say is a regime change in Syria could become a local or even regional catastrophe," she said in an apparent effort to set the stage for transition talks, adding that "only the Syrian people can decide the president's fate".

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

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

Earlier on Tuesday, deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Moscow is aiming to host a round of talks between Syrian officials and opposition leaders next week.

Mr Bogdanov said the Syrian government has agreed to participate, but that it is unclear which opposition groups might come.

The talks are expected to be discussed on Wednesday at a meeting between Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura, Mr 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 air strikes in Syria, although the terms of such an arrangement are uncertain.

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