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French president Hollande in Russia to press Putin on Syria

France's President Francois Hollande (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands prior to their talks in Moscow's Kremlin 28 February 2013.
France's President Francois Hollande (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands prior to their talks in Moscow's Kremlin 28 February 2013. Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko

French President Francois Hollande arrived in Moscow on Thursday to try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to engage in efforts to agree a peaceful transition of power in Syria.

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France favours a Syria without President Assad, but Russia insists that only the Syrians can decide their destiny.

In a radio interview early on Thursday, Hollande voiced cautious optimism that the leaders could bring their opposing positions closer.

"We will discuss this question and I hope Putin and I will manage to have a dialogue about the transfer of power," Hollande told Echo of Moscow radio station in comments translated into Russian.

France has been one of the strongest international backers of urgent action to bring about a power transfer in Syria that excludes Assad and can end a two-year conflict that according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives.

Russia has denied it has a policy of propping up Assad, a long-term ally, but has not backed calls for him to stand down, saying this must be the Syrians' decision.

"President Putin and I both understand all the seriousness of the situation. And even though our positions at the moment differ, we want to find the best solution for Syria." said Hollande.

France has led moves to have the opposition Syrian National Coalition recognised internationally as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Hollande is keen to improve France’s relations with Putin but human rights lobbyists have urged him to raise questions about Putin’s treatment of certain Russians including journalists and business people who oppose him. Human Rights Watch said 2012 was the worst year for “human rights in Russia in recent memory.”

Hollande also downplayed the fallout from Putin's decision to grant citizenship to French star Gerard Depardieu in a whirl of publicity after the actor rowed with the French authorities over high tax demands.

"I"m sure the Russian president made a choice that does not damage our interests," he said.

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