- Associated Press - Thursday, November 17, 2011

BEIRUT Syria’s allies in Russia called for urgent talks Thursday between Damascus and the opposition, saying an attack by Syrian renegade troops on a government building looks like the start of a civil war.

President Bashar Assad is facing severe international isolation stemming from his crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising, which the U.N. estimates has killed 3,500 people. The Arab League suspended Damascus on Wednesday and threatened economic sanctions if the violence continues.

Activists said at least nine civilians, including a child, were killed by security forces on Thursday.

“This is all looking very much like a civil war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, referring to a pre-dawn attack in the Damascus suburb of Harasta on Wednesday by the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors.

Wednesday’s attack could not be independently confirmed, and the Free Syrian Army released no details about the fighting or possible casualties.

The army defectors reportedly fired machine guns and rockets at an air force intelligence base just outside Damascus - a brazen attack that sent a strong signal the popular uprising could descend into an armed conflict.

On Thursday, the dissident group reportedly staged another bold attack, firing rocket-propelled grenades on ruling Baath Party offices housing security agents in the town of Maaret al-Numan, near the border with Turkey.

Mr. Lavrov urged Syrian government and opposition forces alike to cease violence and negotiate, but he reserved his harshest words for the opposition.

“It is not a secret that along with the peaceful demonstrators, whose strivings and demands we support, there is more and more participation from groups of armed people who have an entirely different agenda from reform and democracy in Syria,” he said.

“Their agenda concerns ethnic and tribal interests, and these people have received and are continuing to receive weapons in growing amounts from neighboring countries, and they don’t particularly hide it.

“Weapons are being smuggled in through Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and if the opposition uses such methods, this will lead to a full-scale civil war,” Mr. Lavrov said.

On Monday, the Russian foreign minister suggested Western countries were exacerbating problems in Syria by inciting the opposition.

Mr. Lavrov on Tuesday met in Moscow with the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, in a failed attempt to persuade him to negotiate with Mr. Assad’s regime.

Even as Mr. Assad was losing allies in quick succession, Russia and China kept up their long-standing ties with Damascus. But on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin appeared to suggest Beijing might support a resolution in the future, calling on both sides in the conflict to work together.

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