Russia warns West against meddling in Syria

MOSCOW - Russia on Wednesday warned against outside interference in Syria, as Britain and France expressed strong doubt Damascus would live up to promises to end its violent repression of dissidents.

Meanwhile, UN rights chief Navi Pillay called for urgent action to protect Syrian civilians caught in 11 months of civil strife while the European Union made contingency plans in case it needed to evacuate its citizens from Syria.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned the West against behaving "like a bull in a china shop", saying Syrians themselves should be allowed to decide their own fate.

"Of course we condemn violence from whichever side it comes, but we must not behave like a bull in a china shop. We need to allow people to decide their own fate independently," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.

Moscow sparked Western anger last week by joining Beijing in using its veto at the Security Council to block UN action against the Damascus regime following its latest military offensive on protestors in the city of Homs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday pointedly sidestepped a question from a reporter who asked him whether Russia had asked Bashar al-Assad to go in his talks with the Syrian president the day before.

He too said the Syrian people themselves must decide their fate, while calling for Syrian opposition forces to enter into negotiations with Assad's government to reach a solution to the conflict acceptable to all.

Turkey has offered to hold an international conference "as soon as possible" with regional players and world powers to solve the crisis, its foreign minister said on Wednesday.

The conference could take place in Turkey or in another country but it must certainly be "in the region" and "as soon as possible", Ahmet Davutoglu said in a televised interview.

In Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe dismissed promises made to Lavrov by Assad to end the bloodshed, terming them "manipulation".

"I absolutely do not believe in the commitments made by the Syrian regime," he told a radio programme jointly run by AFP. "This is a manipulation which we are not going to fall for."

In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron also dismissed Assad's promises.

"I think we have very little confidence in that," Cameron told parliament.

Britain will now press for stronger EU sanctions and will increase support for opposition groups inside and outside the country, Cameron said.

Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium have all recalled their ambassadors to Syria for consultations, while Germany decided to leave the vacant post empty for now.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd on Wednesday summoned the Syrian envoy to convey his "grave concerns" about the worsening crisis, his spokeswoman said.

In Geneva, Pillay, the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the Syrian army's continuing shelling of the city of Homs, a centre of protest in the country.

"I am appalled by the Syrian government's wilful assault on Homs, and its use of artillery and other heavy weaponry in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in the city," he said in a statement.

"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have fuelled the Syrian government's readiness to massacre its own people in an effort to crush dissent," he added.

And he stressed the "extreme urgency for the international community to cut through the politics and take effective action to protect the Syrian population" more than 6,000 of whom have died since the start of the upheaval that began with protests in March 2011 amid the Arab Spring.

European Union officials in Brussels said they were making contingency plans in case EU citizens had to be rapidly evacuated from Syria, while mulling a ban on flights in and out of that country.

"We're trying to make things change," a senior EU official said on condition of anonymity, voicing concern that the violence could last a long time. "We're facing a wall, and we have to find a way of climbing over that wall and moving ahead."

The 27-state bloc is also discussing whether to ban the import of phosphates from Syria, freeze the assets of the Syrian central bank and suspend trade in gold and other gems in order to dry up the regime's funds, diplomats said.

Gulf foreign ministers said they would meet Sunday in Cairo, rather than Saturday in Riyadh, to discuss the crisis, a Gulf Cooperation Council official said on Wednesday.