A Kremlin spokesman has denied reports that Vladimir Putin sent a senior intelligence official to Damascus late last year to ask Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down.

A report in the Financial Times quoted western intelligence sources detailing the apparent mission of Colonel-General Igor Sergun to Damascus. According to the newspaper report, Sergun delivered a message from Putin that it was time for Assad to stand down, but was firmly rebuffed by the Syrian leader.

“No, that is not the case,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, when asked about the mission, Russian news agencies reported.

Moscow entered the Syrian conflict in late September, providing air support for Assad’s army. For a number of years the main sticking point between Russia and the west in Syria has been Moscow’s insistence that Assad is the legitimate ruler of the country and must play a part in any settlement, while the west seeing Assad as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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