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Putin: Russia recognizes need for change in Syria

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BEIRUT — Days of intense fighting in a Palestinian refugee camp subsided Thursday, and some of the more than 100,000 residents who fled the violence in the capital Damascus began to trickle back, activists and officials said.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he is not preoccupied much with the fate of President Bashar Assad's regime and knows changes in the country are needed.

It was another blow to the regime from its most important international ally, coming just a week after Russia's top envoy for Syria was quoted as saying Mr. Assad's forces were losing control of the country.

Although the Foreign Ministry backpedaled on that statement, analysts have suggested for months that the Kremlin is resigned to losing its longtime ally.

"We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime. We realize what's going on there and that the family has been in power for 40 years," Mr. Putin said. "Undoubtedly, there is a call for changes."

In Damascus, where rebels are posing an increasing challenge in Mr. Assad's seat of power, fighting has been raging for days in the Yarmouk refugee camp. It began when pro- and anti-regime elements within the camp began clashing a week ago.

More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents have fled the camp since last week when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

They sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, in other parts of Damascus or other cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, the agency said.

Tens of thousands had fled the camp over the past few days amid fears that government troops could launch a new offensive to cleanse the area of opposition fighters.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Yarmouk was quiet Thursday and that "hundreds of people have returned."

Damascus-based Palestinian official Khaled Abdul-Majid told The Associated Press that Cairo-based Palestinian leaders were mediating to get the remaining rebels out of Yarmouk. The rebels entered Yarmouk over the past week to support anti-regime Palestinian residents fighting government loyalists.

Mr. Abdul-Majid said the exiled leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah are taking part in the mediation by phone from Cairo.

"There are no guarantees from the gunmen," said Mr. Abdul-Majid, adding that the rebels should pull out to the southern Damascus neighborhoods of Hajar Aswad and Yalda, where they came from.

The rebel offensive in the camp, which began last Friday, was aimed at driving out pro-government Palestinian gunmen of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).
Several Syria-based Palestinian factions called on Palestinians who fled to return to the camp in a statement Thursday saying "it will be a safe area."

Syria's conflict started 21 months ago as an uprising against Mr. Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government.

According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed in the past 21 months.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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