By Jill Dougherty
Russia is willing to participate in the transportation and destruction of Syrian chemical weapons, but only as part of an international coalition, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Thursday.
Shoigu's comments at the Valdai forum in Russia's Novgorod region -- an annual meeting where experts, pundits and diplomatic personnel gather for discussions with senior Russian officials -- come as United Nations Security Council members are trying to hammer out a resolution to get Syria to give up its chemical weapons.
Russia and the United States earlier agreed on a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, but the exact makeup of the teams that would participate wasn't immediately known.
Security Council members met Wednesday on the resolution; it wasn't clear Wednesday night how much progress they'd made.
The plan came after an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. Western countries have claimed that evidence -- including a Monday U.N. report that confirmed chemical weapons were used -- indicates that the Syrian government launched the attack against rebels. But Syria says anti-regime forces used the weapons, and Russia has not accepted the West's conclusions about who used them.
Syria agreed to the Russia-U.S. plan, and U.S. President Barack Obama has held back on possible military action while diplomatic options play out.
But reaching a final deal at the U.N. will be tough. U.S. and French officials want to include the threat of military action in the event Syria doesn't comply, but Russian officials don't want any wording that could countenance the use of force.
Syria's al-Assad says he welcomes return of U.N. inspectors
Meanwhile, Syria's president says he'll welcome the return of U.N. investigators to follow up on more allegations of chemical weapons use in his country.
"We've been asking them to come back to Syria to continue their investigations," President Bashar al-Assad told Fox News in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
Al-Assad said he hadn't had time yet to analyze the U.N. investigators' findings so far, but he stressed that they have more work to do.
"They haven't finished it yet," he said, adding that it's clear that rebels, not his government, were behind chemical weapons attacks.
Ake Sellstrom, the head of the inspection team that visited after the August 21 attack, told CNN that the next visit could take place as early as next week.
While some Western countries say Monday's U.N. findings implicated the Syrian regime in using sarin gas, Russia has fired back, calling the report "distorted."
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov also told Russia Today that the report was built on insufficient information. He said Russia has its own evidence from the site of the August 21 attack that, according to U.S. estimates, killed more than 1,400 people.
In the same interview, he said Syria has given Russia evidence that implicates rebels in the attack, and that Russia is studying the evidence.
Russia has been a strong ally of al-Assad's regime, and Russian defense contracts with Syria have probably exceeded $4 billion.
The United Nations official in charge of weapons inspectors said the report alleging chemical weapons use in Syria "stands for itself," shooting back at Russian allegations that the report was "biased" and "distorted."
"It is a very sound, scientific report," Angela Kane, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday.
Jill Dougherty reported from Russia. CNN's Jason Hanna, Tom Watkins and Holly Yan contributed to this report.
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