- Associated Press - Sunday, December 9, 2012

BEIRUT — Syria’s civil war spilled over into neighboring Lebanon once again on Sunday, with gunbattles in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime that left four dead.

Nine Syrian judges and prosecutors also defected to the opposition. It was the latest setback for the regime, which appears increasingly embattled as rebels make gains in northern Syria and near Damascus, the capital.

The defecting judges posted a joint statement online urging others to join them and break ranks with Mr. Assad’s regime. There have been several high-level defections over the past year, including Mr. Assad’s former prime minister.

In Geneva, the U.N. special representative for Syria and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to discuss the crisis in Syria.

They said in a joint statement that the situation in Syria is “bad and getting worse,” adding that a political process to end the conflict was “still necessary and still possible.”

Russia and the U.S. have argued bitterly over how to address the conflict, which began with peaceful protests against Mr. Assad in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has killed an estimated 40,000 people. Activists said another 45 were killed Sunday.

The U.S. has criticized Russia for shielding the Assad regime, while Moscow has accused Washington of encouraging the rebels and being intent on regime change.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia agreed to take part in the Geneva talks on the condition there would be no demand for Mr. Assad to step down.

Washington and its allies, including Turkey and Qatar, repeatedly have called on the Syrian president to step down to help stop the bloodshed.

“We are not conducting any negotiations on the fate of Assad,” Mr. Lavrov said, adding that the Americans were wrong to see Moscow as softening its position on Syria. “All attempts to portray things differently are unscrupulous, even for diplomats of those countries which are known to try to distort the facts in their favor.”

Addressing fears that Mr. Assad could use chemical weapons in a last-ditch effort to save his regime, Mr. Lavrov once again said the Syrian government has given assurances that it has no intention of ever using the weapons of mass destruction. He said the greatest threat is that they would fall into the hands of militants.

Russia’s foreign minister said that after he agreed to a U.S. proposal to have his and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s deputies “brainstorm” on Syria, the Americans began to suggest that Russia was softening its position.

“No such thing,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We have not changed our position.”

He urged the international community to come together and “with one voice” to demand a cease-fire, return U.N. observers in bigger numbers and begin a political dialogue. Mr. Lavrov repeated that Russia is not wedded to Mr. Assad but believes that only the Syrians have the right to choose their leaders.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the U.S. remains willing to hold additional discussions in the weeks ahead, if it would help “advance the process of political transition that the people of Syria seek.”

In Lebanon, fighting between pro-and anti-Assad gunmen flared as bodies of three Lebanese, who were killed after crossing into Syria to fight in the civil war were brought back home for burial, the state-run National News Agency said.

Four people were killed and 12 were wounded in the gunfights, the agency said. Two Lebanese soldiers were also injured, the Lebanese Armed Forces command said.

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