Russia has strongly supported the Syria peace plan of the U.N.-Arab special envoy Kofi Annan even as pressure is building up to wind down his mission.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Mr. Annan in a telephone talk on Sunday that his peace plan was the only viable option for resolving the crisis in Syria and should be carried forward.

“S.V. Lavrov emphasised that the unfolding situation [in Syria] goes to prove that the special envoy's peace plan is the sole basis for politico-diplomatic settlement of the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in its account of the telephone call placed by Mr. Annan.

“The main task at this stage is to consolidate the efforts of all key players to ensure the comprehensive implementation of Mr Annan's proposals,” Mr. Lavrov was further quoted as stating.

The Russian Foreign Minister assured Mr. Annan that Russia was working hard to “induce” the Syrian government and rebels to open a “substantive political dialogue”. He also promised to consider various options to bolster Mr. Annan's efforts.

The Russian support for Mr. Annan came as the Arab League called on him to set a time limit for his mission and Syrian rebels urged the U.N. envoy to call his peace plan a failure.

Meanwhile, Russia has denounced the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on the Houla massacre in Syria. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued on Sunday that the resolution goes beyond the Council's mandate and is “imbalanced, biased and contains a number of one-sided assessments”.

“It is a matter of great concern that some countries name culprits without waiting for the findings of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) regarding the Houla events in order to exert pressure on the U.N. Security Council, exploit the tragedy in their own interests and foil the implementation of the plan of the U.N. and LAS special envoy Kofi Annan,” the Russian statement said.

Assad speaks out

AP, AFP report from Beirut:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defended his government's crackdown on opponents on Sunday, saying a doctor performing messy emergency surgery does not have blood on his hands if he is trying to save a patient.

In his first speech since January, Mr. Assad appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response to the 15-month-old revolt against his rule, which has killed up to 13,000 people, according to activist groups. He also denied responsibility for last week's Houla massacre of more than 100 people, saying not even “monsters” would carry out such an ugly crime.

“When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?” Mr. Assad said in a televised speech to Parliament. “Or do we thank him for saving the patient?”

Mr. Assad insisted the revolt was the work of foreign-backed extremists not reformers seeking change.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops and rebels clashed on Sunday in the countryside of Damascus province and near the northern city of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

On Saturday, violence in Syria killed 89 people, including 57 soldiers, the largest number of casualties the military has suffered in a single day since an uprising began in March 2011, the watchdog said.

The Observatory's head Rami Abdel-Rahman explained that regular troops were fighting in unfamiliar territory.

“What exacerbates those losses is that the army is fighting locals of those towns and villages, whether military defectors or civilians who took up arms against the regime, who know the area inside out and enjoy public support.”

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