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Obama supports UN talks but seeks to keep pressure on Syria

Washington: President Barack Obama expressed support on Tuesday for UN Security Council talks aimed at a diplomatic breakthrough that would allow Syria's government to avoid US missile strikes if it surrenders its chemical weapons arsenal.

But the president was still going to Congress to push his original plan of airstrikes against Bashar Assad's regime in case the new effort fails. Obama also addresses the nation from the White House on Tuesday night.

US President Barack Obama. AP

US President Barack Obama. AP

The Security Council scheduled a closed-door meeting for 2000 GMT.

Obama discussed the plan for UN talks with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron before meeting with senators who are wary of US military intervention.

A group of senators started preparing a resolution calling for a UN team to remove Syria's chemical weapons by a set deadline and allowing US military action if that doesn't happen.

The Obama administration blames Assad's regime for last month's deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus and says more than 1,400 people were killed.

The prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough unfolded rapidly as Assad's government accepted a plan advanced by Russia, its closest ally, to turn over its chemical weapons stockpile. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his government quickly agreed to the Russian initiative to "thwart US aggression."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country was working with Syria to prepare a detailed plan of action.

France was proposing a Security Council resolution to verify the disarmament.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the US was still waiting for a proposal from the Russians on how the plan would work.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged potential progress. "Before this morning, the Syrian government had never even acknowledged they possessed chemical weapons. Now they have," Carney said on MSNBC.

The first vote in Congress on authorizing the use of military force had been expected Wednesday, but that has been delayed for the alternate proposal.

All sides, including Russia, seemed to welcome the chance to try another solution.

But Kerry said the UN approach must not be used as a delaying tactic. And the opposition Syrian National Coalition cast Syria's latest move as a ploy to escape punishment for a crime against humanity.

More than 100,000 people have died in more than two years of Syria's civil war.

Obama on Monday told CBS, "The key is, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, that we don't just trust, but we also verify. The importance is to make sure that the international community has confidence that these chemical weapons are under control, that they are not being used, that potentially they are removed from Syria and that they are destroyed."

Obama has declined to say what he would do if lawmakers rejected his proposal for military strikes.

The original resolution in the Senate would authorize limited military strikes for up to 90 days and forbids US ground troops in Syria for combat operations. Several Democrats and Republicans announced their opposition Monday.

Sixty-one percent of Americans want Congress to vote against authorization of military strikes in Syria, according to an Associated Press poll. The poll, taken Sept. 6-8, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Sen. John McCain, among Congress' most outspoken advocates of intervention in Syria, said he was skeptical of Russia's intentions.

"But to not test it would also be a mistake," he said.

Associated Press