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Obama, Putin far apart on Syria at G-20 summit

Syria's civil-war has overshadowed the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg on its final day. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has warned against armed intervention planned by the US and France. Host Russia said "differences" remained.

G-20 leaders tried to turn their attention to world economic woes such as youth unemployment on Friday at their summit in Russia. However, debate continued over how to respond to last month's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria's capital, Damascus.

The Kremlin said talks on Syria had taken place overnight between Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured far right) and British Prime Minister David Cameron. They had "exchanged views," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Last week, Cameron failed to win approval from Britain's parliament for British participation in US plans for military action against Syria's regime under President Bashar al-Assad in reaction to a suspected gas attack in Damascus on August 21.

Cameron told the British public broadcaster BBC from the summit that the UK had evidence of the use of chemical weapons in the attack in samples its experts had tested.

Ban cautions US, France

Speaking on the summit sidelines on Thursday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that "ill-considered military action" would increase the risk of "further sectarian violence" among Syria's diverse and traumatized population.

Syria's warfare over the past two years had created a "humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions," he added. About a third of Syria's pre-war population of 20.8 million has been displaced within Syria or has fled abroad.

"The world must do everything within its powers to stop the suffering of the Syrian people," Ban said. "Let us use this united recognition of the problem as our starting point for focused and positive action."

His remarks were echoed in Germany on Friday by President Joachim Gauck, who told public broadcaster Deutschlandradio that he hoped the world community would "come together" with an "appropriate" reaction to the gas attack.

No bilateral meeting was scheduled at the St. Petersburg summit on Friday between Putin and US President Barack Obama (pictured far left), who have been strongly at odds over Syria.

Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the president had told G20 leaders during Thursday dinner talks that the US had "very high confidence" that Assad government forces had launched a poison gas attack. Obama put a similar case on Friday in bilateral talks with President Xi Jinping of China, which, like Russia, has previously blocked action via that UN Security Council against Syria.

At the UN hours earlier, the US ambassador Samantha Power accused Russia of holding the Security Council "hostage" by backing Assad.

"Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities," Power said.

According to US intelligence, 1,426 people living in a rebel-held area of Damascus were killed in the August 21 chemical weapons attack, which involved the use of sarin nerve gas. UN inspectors this week began laboratory analyses of samples taken at the site.

Before the summit's close, an encounter was expected between Obama and French President Francois Hollande, who is also a vocal advocate of a military intervention against Syria's Assad regime.

Awaiting Obama in Washington, is a fractious debate in Congress over whether to authorize what Obama's administration has called "limited" military action.

Economy 'improving'

In a summit communiqué Friday, host Russia said the global economy was improving in the wake of real estate and banking sector crashes that began in 2008.

"But it's definitely too early to say that the [economic] crisis has been overcome and that it will be easy from now on," said Andrei Bokarev, the head of Russian Finance Ministry's international relations department.

Putin said at Friday's plenary session that the priority for the G20 was "investing in economic growth and the creation of jobs."

"The level of unemployment is still higher than before the crisis and there many problems which are quite acute," Putin added.

ipj/pfd (AP, dpa, AFP)