DAMASCUS - Russia said Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad could leave power as part of a settlement to end bloodshed in Syria, as Damascus agreed to allow relief workers to visit four trouble spots.
"We have never said or insisted that Assad necessarily had to remain in power at the end of the political process," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in Switzerland.
"This issue has to be settled by the Syrians themselves," ITAR-TASS news agency quoted him as saying.
Moscow has been facing mounting pressure to back Assad's departure as a first step in a settlement that would see his inner circle assume command in the interim, based on a US-backed transition in Yemen earlier this year.
Tuesday's statement was one of its most explicit about Assad's position since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to clearly back his rule during a visit to Damascus in February.
It came as Russia and China, which have stalled Western-led moves against Damascus, began talks on ending nearly 15 months of violence that has killed more than 13,500 people, and cost the lives of another 26 people on Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin began talks with President Hu Jintao, a day ahead of a meeting with Hu's likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping.
China's envoy to the United Nations said on Monday that efforts to end the Syrian bloodshed were at a "crossroads," and that government and opposition forces must halt violence.
Both it and Russia, which have twice used their veto powers to block tougher action against Assad's regime at the UN Security Council, have come under mounting pressure to change their stance since last month's Houla massacre.
China's ambassador Li Baodong said the massacre of at least 108 people, most of them women and children, had dealt a huge blow to UN-Arab envoy Kofi Annan's mediation mission, as Beijing took over the chair of the Security Council for June.
Li told reporters, without signalling any easing in China's opposition to sanctions against Assad: "The political process to solve the Syrian crisis is at a crossroads."
The Houla massacre "has caused collateral damage to Annan's mediation effort. And also it presents a huge challenge to the international community," Li said.
Bloodshed has persisted in Syria despite a UN-backed peace plan brokered by Annan that put almost 300 observers on the ground.
Access has been more restricted for aid agencies, however, and the United Nations said on Tuesday that Syria's government has now given them permission to visit four locations following a meeting on scaling up humanitarian aid.
"We will have a presence in Homs, Idlib, Daraa and Deir Ezzor to start with," said John Ging, director of the coordination and response unit at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The UN estimates that at least one million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
On the ground, 15 soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels in western Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Elsewhere, troops and pro-regime militia backed by tanks went on a new offensive against rebels, seizing the central town of Kfar Zita after three days of bombardment, the Observatory said, adding rebels had withdrawn.
Four civilians were killed overnight in a "huge military operation" in the Kfar Oweid area of Idlib, a province near Turkey that is a rebel stronghold.
The Observatory said the flashpoint central city of Homs came under artillery fire "as part of a campaign by regular forces to destroy them completely."
In Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast, four rebel fighters were killed in an army attack on the town of Al-Hafa, the group said. It said one of those killed was an officer who had defected.
Gunmen assassinated an army colonel in front of his home in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.
The latest clashes came after the military suffered major weekend losses to the rebel Free Syrian Army which announced it was resuming "defensive operations" because of the failure of the UN-backed April 12 ceasefire.
Politically, Syria declared diplomats of several major Western states and Turkey as personae non gratae on Tuesday.
The government said it made the move against the ambassadors of the US, Britain, France and Turkey, among others, in response to the expulsion of its own diplomats, in the aftermath of the Houla massacre.
"Some states recently informed heads of our diplomatic missions and embassy staff that they are unwelcome," said a statement that also named the ambassadors of Canada, Italy and Spain and embassy staff from Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany.
Syria "still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect" and that diplomacy is a "necessary tool" for countries to resolve disputes.
A slew of mainly Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of the Houla massacre in late May.
Annan is to discuss the Syria crisis at the Security Council on Thursday and in talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday.
As international coordination picks up pace, a US State Department official is to visit Moscow this week to discuss the crisis, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.