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Russia says Syria to attend peace summit

RUSSIA has offered fresh assurances the Syrian government will show up at a new round of peace talks next week and will soon ship more toxic agents abroad for destruction under a deal to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal.

The statements appeared intended to ease Western concerns about President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to a peace process that started last month, and to abandoning his chemical arsenal by mid-year under a deal brokered by Russia and the US.

They came as Russia hosted the leader of the Syrian opposition National Coalition for the first time in the three-year-old conflict, which has killed more than 100,000 people and spawned mutual recriminations between Russia and the West.

Syria plans to send a large shipment of toxic agents out of the country this month and can complete the removal process by March 1, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.

He added: "The Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1."

Russia is Mr Assad's most powerful diplomatic backer, but politicians in Moscow have been under pressure to push Damascus to speed up shipments since it emerged last week less than 5% of its chemical stockpile had been given up. The operation was far behind schedule and the deadline for sending all toxic agents out by this week will be missed.

American officials accused Damascus of dragging its feet, and Secretary of State John Kerry asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a security conference in Munich last Friday to put pressure on Mr Assad's government to accelerate the operation.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "The Syrian government is slowing the destruction of its chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad's government must respect the commitments it has made."

Russia has said Western concerns are overblown and rejected accusations the delays are deliberate.

The new peace talks are due to start in Geneva on Monday.

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