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Putin addresses media, expresses concern about Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has held his first annual news conference since returning to the presidency. In his speech he said his main concern about Syria is the country itself, not President Bashar Assad.

President Putin addressed Russian and foreign journalists on Thursday in Moscow during his first annual news conference since returning to the presidency in May.

When asked by a reporter about the conflict in Syria, Putin said Russia recognizes a need for change. Putin said Russia's main concern is the fate of the country and not that of President Bashar Assad.

"We are not concerned about the fate of Assad's regime. We understand what is going on there," Putin told the conference. "We are worried about a different thing - what next? We simply don't want the current opposition, having become the authorities, to start fighting the people who are the current authorities and become the opposition - and (we don't want) this to go on forever."

Backing adoption bill

Putin said that a draft bill banning US adoptions of Russian children is a legitimate response to these human rights sanctions. The bill has won initial approval from Russian parliament and Putin indicated he would sign the bill into law.

Addressing recent tension in US relations, President Putin said he regretted new legislation signed by President Barack Obama last week that will reprimand Russians accused of violating human rights by refusing them visas and freezing their assets in the US.

Putin said this so-called Magnitsky Act was straining ties between Moscow and Washington, "This is very bad. This, of course, poisons our relationship," he said.

Domestic issues

Putin also used the marathon live broadcast to touch on key domestic issues. He hailed the Russian economy for performing well despite the global economic crisis and predicted growth of 3.7 percent this coming year. He also highlighted Russia's low unemployment rate of about 5.4 percent, which he described as "good - one of the best in all the developed economies of the world."

He also reiterated that Russia would not end recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway regions of Georgia, but added that he wants a normalization of relations with Georgia and their new government led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili.

On a more personal note, Putin, now 60, dismissed rumors that he is suffering from health problems, saying such speculation served the interests of his political opponents.

Russian television networks had allotted 90 minutes for the press conference but it went for over three hours. At his last conference in 2008, Putin took 78 questions and the conference ran 4 hours and 40 minutes.

hc/mz (Reuters, AP, dpa)