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The foreign ministers also recognized the Syrian National Council, one of two main opposition groups, as one legitimate party to talk with, their statement said. But, acknowledging that there were other elements opposed to Assad’s rule, they urged the opposition to agree on a shared set of principles.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was impressed with the Council’s commitment to democracy and the protection of minorities. But, he added, “We can’t vouch for every single group that may make up opposition elements in Syria.”

Also Monday, a number of Western nations, including Britain and Switzerland called for Syrian authorities to halt the crackdown.

The call by Britain, Switzerland and others came a day before the U.N. Human Rights Council was scheduled to hold an urgent meeting on Syria, and amid efforts by Russia to block the Geneva-based body from passing a resolution that would condemn the government for abuses carried out by its security forces.

Russia has previously voted with China to stop resolutions in the U.N. Security Council from backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning Assad’s crackdown.

Any decision taken by the Human Rights Council would carry little legal weight, but Western and Arab diplomats hope it would send a signal that the U.N.’s top human rights body wants the violent repression to end.

On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against military intervention in Syria and its foreign minister criticized an international conference in Tunisia last week focusing on the country, saying it had failed to help end the bloodshed.

Sergey Lavrov expressed regret that the “Friends of Syria” conference didn’t “help create conditions that would encourage all Syrians to engage in political dialogue.”

Russia criticized the conference’s organizers for failing to invite representatives of the Syrian government and accused them of encouraging the Syrian opposition to reject talks.

“It’s not realistic to demand that the government ends its action against militants and keep the militants free of any obligations whatsoever,” Lavrov said.

Meanwhile, he hailed the Syrian regime’s referendum on a new constitution Sunday as a “movement toward democracy” even as the U.S. and its allies dismissed it as a “farce.”

Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.