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Annan on diplomatic mission to Russia to win support for Syrian peace plan

Kofi Annan today raised the prospect of President Bashar al-Assad's stepping down as part of a final peace deal, marking the first time the international envoy on Syria has hinted that his mediation efforts might lead to a change in leadership.

But there were no signs that Assad was prepared to yield to international pressure to step aside or to even halt a military campaign that drew fresh claims by opposition activists that government forces continue to shell parts of the city of Homs.

Asked by a reporter in Moscow whether Assad should resign, Annan, who is serving as the joint envoy on Syria for the Arab League and the United Nations, said: "That is one of the issues the Syrians will have to decide. Our effort is to help the Syrians come to the table and find a way out of all this. It may in the end come to that, but it's not up to me, it's up to the Syrians."

So far, Annan has not been able to secure agreements from either the Syrian government or the armed opposition to accept a U.N. supervised cease-fire agreement. But he held high-level meeting with top officials from Russia, including President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend, and headed out today for a visit to Beijing for meetings with top Chinese officials tomorrow, part of a last ditch effort to persuade Assad to rein in his security forces and negotiate a political settlement with the opposition.  

"Time is of the essence. This cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely," he told reporters at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. "The message I would also like to put out today is that the transitional winds blowing today cannot be easily resisted, or cannot be resisted for long. The only way to deal with this is through reform, through change that respects democratic principles, individual dignity, the rule of law and human rights."

Annan is seeking to enlist the support of top Russian and Chinese leaders in ratcheting pressure on the Syrian leader to halt a year-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that has left more than 8,000 people dead and delivered the country to the early phases of a civil war.

Annan said he was confident that Russia, which has been accused by the United States and other Western partners of abetting President Assad, is acting in good faith to achieve a peaceful outcome to the crisis. "They are prepared ... to work with me not only in supporting the approach and the plans I've put on the table but also in encouraging the parties to move in the same direction ... to settle this issue peacefully."

"I think they do have influence," he added, "and they have indicated they will use that influence to help me constructively."

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