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UPDATE 1-Russia says "Friends of Syria" encourage extremists

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MOSCOW, March 1 (Reuters) - Russia said on Friday that decisions made at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Rome, at which Western and Arab states pledged aid for Syrian rebels, would embolden President Bashar al-Assad's foes seeking his overthrow.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said rebel attempts to topple Assad would inevitably cause suffering among civilians in Syria, where more than 70,000 people have been killed in a nearly two-year-old conflict.

"Decisions taken in Rome, as well as declarations voiced there, in letter and spirit directly encourage extremists to (seek) the seizure of power by force," he said in a statement.

After the "Friends of Syria" meeting on Thursday, the United States said it would give non-lethal aid directly to rebels for the first time and would more than double its support to Syria's civilian opposition, but Western powers did not offer weapons.

Russia says it is not propping up Assad but has shielded him by blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed to put pressure on him to end bloodshed and by insisting that his exit from power must not be a precondition for a negotiated solution.

On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin cautiously welcomed French President Francois Hollande's proposal that dialogue on Syria be broadened to bring in parties that could act as negotiators between Assad and opposition rebels. (Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Alistair Lyon)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130301/update-1-russia-says-friends-syria-encourage-extremists