Russian President Vladimir
Putin and US President Barack Obama made little headway Monday in
solving their differences over the conflict in Syria.
After a meeting on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Obama said Washington and Moscow have "differing perspectives on the problem."
Obama said he and Putin share an interest in reducing violence, securing chemical weapons and resolving the conflict through political means. Putin and Obama agreed that bringing the Syrian regime and rebels to the negotiating table remained the goal.
"Our opinions do not coincide, but all of us have the intention to stop the violence in Syria, to stop the growth of victims and to solve the situation peacefully, including by bringing the parties to the negotiations table in Geneva," Putin said. "We agreed to push the parties to the negotiations table."
Plans for a conference in Geneva have been in the works for severals weeks, but so far haven't produced results.
The disagreement between Moscow and Western powers over the two-year-long civil war overshadowed an announcement made at the luxury Loch Erne golf resort near the town of Enniskillen that the United States and the European Union were finally launching a long-mooted free-trade zone embracing the world's two largest economic areas.
Other talks on the agenda of the summit, due to end on Tuesday afternoon, include the economic issues that have worried leaders since the financial crisis of 2007-08. Among them are British Prime Minister David Cameron's "three Ts" - updating international tax rules, greater financial transparency and opening up trade.
Cameron, who is hosting the meeting, attempted to find common ground on Syria during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in London on Sunday.
"We both see a humanitarian catastrophe, we both see the dangers of extremism," he said of a conflict that the United Nations says has killed at least 93,000 people. "If we focus on that common ground we can indeed make some progress," Cameron added after his meeting with Putin.
But Russia's rejection on Monday of a no-fly zone to protect opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad showed it was in no mood for compromise.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich also voiced concern about Western plans to ship arms to the Syrian opposition.
Al-Assad, meanwhile, warned in an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper that Europe risked bringing terrorism into its "backyard" if it followed through on proposals to send weapons to Syrian rebel forces.
The US last week said it planned to arm the rebels amid evidence that the regime had used chemical weapons.
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she expected "controversial discussions" to take place at the G8 as she reiterated her position that Germany will not be supplying weapons to anti-Assad forces.
"Unfortunately, Russia has until now prevented several resolutions in the [UN] Security Council. Perhaps we can now make progress on this issue," Merkel told RTL television ahead of her departure for Northern Ireland.
Shortly before the formal start of the G8, Obama, Cameron and top EU officials confirmed that free trade negotiations would start next month, with Obama pointing to a July 8 date in Washington.
The deal seeks to eliminate import tariffs between the US and EU members to create the greatest free trade zone in the world.
"This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it," Cameron said, highlighting its potential boost to the global economy and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Obama spoke of a "potentially groundbreaking partnership," while warning both sides to resist "the temptation to downsize our ambitions or avoid tough issues just for the sake of getting a deal."
His comments appeared to address French concerns that its heavily protected entertainment sector would be overwhelmed by the US music and film industry.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the sides hoped to conclude the talks within two years. He stressed, however, that given the many sensitive issues on both sides, substance was "more important than speed."
Merkel called for rapid agreement on the treaaty, noting that other attempts to negotiate it in the past had all failed.
"It's our responsibility to bring this entire discussion to a successful conclusion," she said.
The Group of Eight comprises seven leading industrialized nations - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus Russia and the European Union.
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