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G20-Obama, Putin agree on need for political transition, ceasefire in Syria (Update)

By Matt Spetalnick and Lidia Kelly

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the need for a Syria-led political transition, including U.N.-mediated talks, when they spoke at the G20 summit on Sunday, a White House official said.

The Cold War superpower foes have been at odds over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Moscow supports and Washington wants gone, as well as the conflict in Ukraine.

In a 35 minute discussion on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Turkey, Obama and Putin discussed efforts to find a solution to the conflict, which had been made more pressing by the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people, the U.S. official said.

“President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be proceeded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire,” the official said.

Obama welcomed efforts by all countries in confronting Islamic State, noting the importance of Russia’s military efforts in Syria focusing on the group, the official said.

Following the talks, Russian media quoted a top Kremlin adviser as saying the two countries have similar approach towards fighting terrorism but differ on tactics.

“Strategic objectives relating to the fight against the Islamic State are, in principle, very similar (between Russia and the U.S.), but there are differences on the tactics side,” Yuri Ushakov was quoted as saying.

Russia stands accused of targeting groups other than Islamic State in air strikes in Syria, including fighters backed by the United States and its allies.

The White House official said Obama also reiterated his support for the implementation of the Minsk agreement, a deal to end fighting in eastern Ukraine agreed by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France.

On Sunday, the president of the European Council Donald Tusk said the United States and Russia must cooperate in fighting Islamic State in Syria, stressing Russia should focus its military actions there on the radical Islamists and not the Syrian opposition.

At a news conference on the sidelines of a G20 summit, Tusk said that Russian bombing of Assad’s opponents was only increasing the wave of refugees to Europe.

“It should be our common aim to coordinate our actions against Daesh and for sure the cooperation between the United States and Russia is a crucial one,” Tusk said, referring to the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“But we need not only more cooperation, but also more good will, especially from Russian action on the ground in Syria. It must be focused more on Islamic State and not – because we cannot accept it – against the moderate Syrian opposition,” Tusk said.

Europe is facing an inflow of 1 million refugees from the Middle East and Africa this year alone as a result of the Syrian conflict, which pits the forces of Islamic State, Assad and the Syrian opposition against each other.

“We have no doubt that from actions against the Syrian opposition the only result will be a new wave of refugees and we have started seeing that, in fact it has started,” Tusk said.

“This is why the cooperation between Russia and other countries, especially the United States, is so important also in this context of the refugee crisis,” he said.

Russia, the United States and powers from Europe and the Middle East outlined a plan on Saturday for a political process in Syria leading to elections within two years, a day after gunmen and suicide bombers from Islamic State went on a rampage through Paris, killing 129 people.

Tusk said that after attacks in Paris, the G20 had to step up efforts to cut off financing to terrorists.

“Terror networks cannot plan or operate without the money that moves through the financial systems of many countries. Only if we fully cooperate on exchange of information about suspicious transactions, will we be able to stop this threat effectively,” Tusk said.

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