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Syria to dominate discussions at G8 summit in Northern Ireland

Syria is expected to dominate discussions as the leaders of the seven leading industrialized nations, plus Russia, gather for the G8 summit. There appeared to be little chance of reaching common ground on the issue.

Serious differences remained between Russia and its Western counterparts as the leaders made their way to the Lough Erne golf resort for the start of the summit on Monday.

These were apparent on Sunday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the host of this year's G8 summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron Downing Street residence in London on Sunday.

President Putin used a press conference following their talks to defend the Kremlin's policy of continuing to supply weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We are delivering weapons to the legitimate government of Syria," Putin said, adding that, in so doing, Russia was "not breaching any rules and norms and we call on all our partners to act in the same fashion."

This came just days after the US announced it would start supplying Syrian rebels with weaponry in light of strong evidence that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons over the past couple of months. This is something that President Barack Obama had previously described as a "red line" that could change US policy on Syria.

Obama and Putin are expected to hold bilateral talks to try to overcome their differences on the issue on the fringes of the G8 summit, just outside of the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen.

Differing views within the EU

Several weeks ago, European Union leaders decided not to extend an arms embargo on Syria, meaning member nations could send arms to the rebels as soon as August. However, there is no common EU policy on the issue.

Germany has clearly stated that it will not send arms to Syrian rebels, a point that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle reiterated in an interview with the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper.

"Germany will not deliver any weapons to Syria," Westerwelle said. "However, we will hold intensive consultations with our partners in the coming days."

Britain was one of the leaders in the move to lift the embargo, but has not yet decided whether it will actually supply weapons to the rebels.

While acknowledging the deep differences between Russia and several of the G8 leaders on Syria, Cameron tried to appear upbeat.

"What I take from our conversation today is that we can overcome these differences if we recognize that we share some fundamental aims: to end the conflict, to stop Syria breaking apart, to let the Syrian people decide who governs them and to take the fight to the extremists and defeat them," Cameron said.

Putin said the Syrian conflict must be brought to an end through "diplomatic means" and expressed the hope that the prospect of convening a proposed peace conference in Geneva had not yet "been finally buried."

Fighting tax evasion

The British prime minister has also said he intends to use the two days of talks to push for more sharing of financial information between countries in an effort to combat tax evasion. In a statement released prior to the start of the summit, Cameron said this would make it harder for companies to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

"These issues corrode public trust and undermine a competitive low tax economy which can only be sustained if people actually pay the taxes they owe," he said.

Also expected to be high on the agenda were concerns about the global economy and the election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran's new president.

Just prior to the official start of the summit, the US and the EU were to officially open negotiations towards an EU-US trade pact.

The G8 is made up of the US, UK, Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Canada and Russia.

pfd/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters, AFPE)