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Vladimir Putin's China Visit: Moscow, Beijing Close Ranks On Syria Issue

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(Updates with comment from Chinese, Russian leaders, officials, comment on gas negotiations)

By Gleb Bryanski and Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING, June 5 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, urged international support on Tuesday for U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria, despite calls from Arab and Western states for a tougher response to the bloodshed.

The show of unity from Putin and Hu showed how reluctant they will be to abandon Annan's plan, which they see as the most viable path to peace in Syria. Western and Arab governments blame forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad for a massacre of 108 people last month, and many want a tougher response.

Syrian rebels said on Monday they were no longer bound by a U.N.-backed truce because Assad had failed to observe their Friday deadline to implement the ceasefire.

But the leaders of Russia and China said Annan's efforts should not be abandoned.

"On the Syrian issue, the two heads of state said the international community should continue to support the joint Arab League/U.N. Special Envoy Annan's mediation efforts and the U.N. monitoring mission, to promote a political solution to the problem in Syria," Chinese state television reported after a meeting between Hu and Putin in Beijing.

Russia and China - permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with the power to veto resolutions - have stymied efforts by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of Bashar, whose forces, the U.N. says, have killed more than 9,000 people in 15 months of bloodshed.

The Syrian issue is following a pattern in which China traditionally joins Russia in opposing Western calls for intervention in crises. In 2011, both countries accused NATO forces of illegitimately turning a U.N.-authorised operation to protect civilians in Libya into a broader campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

On Friday, Russia, China and Cuba voted against a resolution passed by the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva condemning Syria for the massacre in the Houla area and calling for a U.N. investigation to gather evidence for possible criminal prosecution.

After his meeting with Hu, Putin said the two leaders exchanged views on the Middle East, Iran and the Korean peninsula, where North Korea has alarmed the region with rocket launches and a nuclear weapons programme.

"Our approaches are not only close and harmonious, the most important thing is that we have reached a high level of coordination aimed at maximally effective settlement of international crises," Putin said in a statement after the leaders oversaw the signing of a clutch of business deals.

China's Foreign Ministry also said on Tuesday that both Beijing and Moscow opposed foreign intervention or forced regime change in Syria.

"Both sides oppose external intervention in Syria and oppose regime change by force," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a daily news briefing.

"We believe ultimately the Syrian issue should be properly addressed through consultation among different parties in Syria."


NO GAS DEAL THIS TIME

Putin is attending a summit in Beijing of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes former Soviet states in central Asia.

Russia, the world's biggest energy producer, and China, the largest consumer of energy, have been in negotiations over a natural gas deal that Moscow hopes to finalise after years of talks.

Putin led a large delegation of corporate chief executives to China including Gazprom's Alexei Miller, oil pipeline monopoly Transneft's Nikolai Tokarev and oil major Rosneft's Igor Sechin, who before the government reshuffle was Russia's top negotiator in energy talks with China.

But Putin's spokesman said that negotiations over the price of Russian gas in the long-term supply contract were not even on the agenda of Putin's visit.

"This issue is of rather corporate nature and requires detailed approach. Experts should finish their work before the heads of state can take it up," the spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. (Writing and additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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