In this photo taken Tuesday, April 2, 2013 Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview with the German ARD television in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia. Putin has dismissed Western criticism of his government's raids of non-government organizations, saying they must account for their foreign funds. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)
MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said the civil war in Syria has become "a massacre" that must be stopped through peace talks between the government and the opposition, and repeated Russia's firm rejection of calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad's ouster.
Speaking to the German ARD television in remarks released by the Kremlin on Friday, he rejected the Western criticism of Russia for continuing to supply weapons to Assad's regime. Putin said that such shipments don't violate international law, and he criticized those who send weapons to the Syrian opposition fighting a "legitimate government."
Russia has been Assad's main ally, shielding him from the U.N. sanctions over his crackdown on an uprising that turned into a civil war that has killed some 70,000 people.
In recent months, it has sought to distance itself from the Syrian strongman and shown a resignation to him losing power. At the same time, it has refused to back calls for Assad to step down, insisting that the opposition should be persuaded to sit down for talks with the regime.
"What is going on is a massacre, this is a disaster, a catastrophe," Putin said. "It has to be stopped."
He added, however, that "when they say that Assad is fighting against his own people, we need to remember that this is the armed part of the opposition."
Putin said that negotiations between the government and the opposition are necessary to provide guarantees to all parties and prevent the country from sliding into chaos.
"We do not think that Assad should leave today, as our partners suggest. In this case, tomorrow we will have to decide what to do and where to go," Putin said
He said that Russia doesn't want to see Syria plunge into a turmoil, which befell Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
"Therefore, we believe that it is necessary to bring everyone to the negotiation table so that all warring parties could reach an agreement on how their interests will be protected and in which way they will participate in the future governance of the country," he said. "And then they will work together on the implementation of this plan with due guarantees of the international community."
He said that French President Francois Hollande offered "some interesting ideas that can be implemented" on his February's visit to Moscow, but added that it will require some diplomatic work.
"We are ready to support these ideas," Putin said without elaboration. "We need to try and put them into practice."