Russia would welcome any country's offer of haven for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has no plans to make one of its own, Moscow's foreign minister says.
Sergey Lavrov's remarks on Friday night were among the clearest signs yet that Russia could be preparing for a Syria without Assad, as rebel pressure on the embattled leader intensifies.
Over the past four weeks, fighting has reached Damascus, his seat of power, and rebels have captured a string of military bases.
Up to now, Russia has vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Syria's government to stop the violence that has killed more than 40,000 people over the past 21 months. While Russian leaders have given no concrete signs that stance has changed, their tone has shifted as rebels advanced on the outskirts of the capital.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin distanced himself further than ever from the Syrian president, saying Russia did not seek to protect him and suggested his regime was growing weaker.
Speaking to reporters late Friday, Lavrov reiterated Moscow's position that "it doesn't invite President Assad here", although he said other countries had asked Russia to convey their offer of safe passage to Assad.
While he would not name the countries, Lavrov said Russia had responded by telling them to go directly to the Syrian leader.
"If there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome," Lavrov said on board a plane returning from Brussels, where he attended a Russia-EU summit.
"We would be the first to cross ourselves and say: "Thank God, the carnage is over! If it indeed ends the carnage, which is far from certain."
Syria's conflict started in March last year as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. But the bloody crackdown that followed led rebels to take up arms, and the ensuing fighting transformed into a civil war.
The regime came under added condemnation in recent weeks as Western officials raised concerns Assad might use chemical weapons against rebels in an act of desperation.
Syria refused to confirm or deny if it has such weapons but is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them.
The conflict's sectarian dimension looked set to deepen at the weekend, as rebels threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in a central region if residents did not "evict" government troops they said were using the towns as a base to attack nearby areas.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the activist group which reported the rebel ultimatum on Saturday, said such an attack by rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.
Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Syria's population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people.
They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.
Clashes between troops and rebels in the central city of Homs, Syria's third largest, have already displaced tens of thousands of Christians, most of whom either fled to the relatively safe coastal areas or to neighbouring Lebanon.
In another development, 11 rebel groups said they have formed a new coalition, the Syrian Islamic Front.
A statement issued by the new group, dated December 21 and posted on a militant website on Saturday, described it as "a comprehensive Islamic front that adopts Islam as a religion, doctrine, approach and conduct".
Several rebel groups have declared their own coalitions in Syria, including one calling itself an "Islamic state" in the embattled northern city of Aleppo.The statement said the new group would work to avoid differences or disputes with the other Islamic groups