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EU And Putin Still Split Over Syria Crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for closer trade ties and swift progress on visa-free travel between his country and the EU - while holding firm on the issue of Syria.

Under renewed pressure about the crisis at his first summit with EU officials since he returned to the Kremlin last month, Mr Putin said he had discussed Syria with them but made no further comment.

In a veiled warning to the EU to treat Russia as an equal and steer clear of preaching on political issues, he called for a "pragmatic, business-like approach without any ideological or other stereotypes".

Moscow has blunted Western efforts to condemn Syrian President Bashar al Assad's crackdown on rebels and push him from power.

Both Russia and Europe still have hope in UN peace envoy Kofi Annan's UN-backed peace plan to end 15 months of bloodshed in Syria that Western nations blame on Mr Assad.

But EU nations want Russia to press the Syrian leader to withdraw weaponry and halt attacks as demanded by the plan, and want him to step aside to make way for a political transition.

Russia says it is not protecting Mr Assad but that the Syrian leader's exit cannot be a pre-condition for political dialogue.

European diplomats, including European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, called the summit at Constantine Palace on the outskirts of Mr Putin's hometown of St Petersburg to get reacquainted with the Russian leader since his return to power .

But the crisis in Syria overshadowed talks on trade and other issues at the twice-yearly summit.

President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy said the European Union and Russia "might have some divergent assessments" of the situation in Syria.

But he said they agreed that implementing Mr Annan's troubled peace plan was the only way forward in a situation that risks developing into full-scale civil war.

Fighting was reported in Idlib province in the northwest and Deir Ezzor in the northeast on Monday.

At least 40 people were killed across Syria on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Sunday, said in a statement: "Russia's role is crucial for the success of Annan's plan."

She added the EU wanted to "work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence and support" the plan.

The statement said she also spoke to Mr Annan by phone and that they agreed the crisis had reached a "critical point".