MOSCOW  - Russia on Sunday said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power was not a part of past international agreements on the crisis and impossible to implement.

“This is a precondition that is not contained in the Geneva communique (agreed by world powers in June) and which is impossible to implement because it does not depend on anyone,” news agencies quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying.

Lavrov conceded that a rare speech Assad delivered on January 6 laying out his own vision for a peace settlement probably did not go far anough and would not appease the armed opposition. But he also urged Assad’s enemies to come out with a counterproposal that could get serious peace talks started between the two sides for the first time.

“President Assad has forwarded initiatives aimed at inviting all in the opposition to dialogue. Yes, this initiative probably does not go far enough,” said Lavrov. “They will probably not look serious to some. But these are offers. And if I were in the opposition’s place, I would present my counter-ideas about establishing dialogue.” Russia on Saturday reiterated its support for a transition plan that was agreed in Geneva on June 30 but never implemented because of the fighting.

The accord is now being heavily promoted by UN-Arab League envoy on the 21-month crisis Lakhdar Brahimi.

The Geneva deal calls for power to be handed to an interim government but offers no clear guidance about Assad’s future role. Russia argues that only the Syrian people themselves can oust Assad through either elections or some form of negotiated settlement.

Western powers and Arab states - as well as the armed opposition - counter that the plan can only work if Assad steps down. Meanwhile, Shelling on Sunday targeting the town of Hazzeh east of Damascus killed at least nine people including a number of children, a watchdog said, as the Syrian regime pressed its offensive against rebels. Warplanes also pounded rebel zones on the outskirts of Damascus and in the northern province of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added, giving a preliminary death toll of 28 for Sunday.

“At least nine civilians, many of them children, were killed in shelling on the Hazzeh area of Eastern Ghuta,” it said.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that he was unable to immediately confirm how many children had been killed in the artillery attack, but “at least two of the victims were aged under four years.”

Amateur video posted on the Internet by Hazzeh-based activists showed a young man carrying the bloodied body of a young boy away from the site of the attack. The grisly footage also showed other victims lying in the mud. At least two of the bodies shown in the video were those of children. According to the Observatory, more than 3,500 children have been killed in Syria since the outbreak in March 2011 of a peaceful uprising that morphed into an insurgency after President Bashar al-Assad’s cracked down hard on dissent. News of the Hazzeh attack came hours after warplanes bombarded Sfeireh in Aleppo province, as well as Daraya, southwest of Damascus, the monitoring group said. The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers inside Syria, also reported fierce clashes between rebels and the army in Daraya and in the Barzeh district of northern Damascus. Violence around the capital has been on the rise since the army last July launched an offensive against rebels who had moved into several neighbourhoods. Analysts say the regime is attempting to secure an area of control in a radius of about eight kilometres (five miles) around the city.

Sunday’s violence follows a day in which 95 people - 33 civilians, 39 rebel fighters and 23 soldiers - were killed nationwide, the Observatory said.

The United Nations says that more than 60,000 people have been killed over the past nearly 22 months of the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, official media in Syria renewed attacks on UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Sunday, calling him biased and saying his peace mission aimed at solving the country’s crisis was “useless.”

On Wednesday, Brahimi criticised as “one-sided” a proposal by President Bashar al-Assad to end the crisis, and two days later he met top US and Russian officials and urged “a speedy end to the bloodshed” in the strife-torn country. “It is clear that Mr Brahimi is now out of the loop for the solution for Syria. He has taken sides, he is not a mediator,” wrote the pro-regime daily Al-Watan on Sunday’s front page. “Brahimi is incapable of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. “He acknowledged in his last meeting with President Assad (on December 24) that Turkey and Qatar will not stop supporting terrorist groups and that he cannot prevent them from doing so,” it wrote.

“Brahimi’s mission is useless, just like (his predecessor) Kofi Annan, who resigned when he realised that he had no role to play in a war waged against Syria by several Western capitals,” said Al-Watan.

 Brahimi was appointed to replace Annan in September 2012, after the former UN secretary general resigned when his own peace plan failed to prevent further fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Assad.

Since the start of the uprising in March 2011, Damascus has labelled those calling for Assad’s fall as foreign-backed “terrorists.”

Brahimi, who last week criticised a three-step solution announced in a rare speech by Assad, “represents the Turkish, US and Gulf states’ position, and is not an objective mediator,” said Al-Watan.

After Brahimi told the BBC on Wednesday that Assad’s proposal was “more sectarian, more one-sided” than similar initiatives he had made in the past official media in Syria accused him of “flagrant bias.”

Assad’s plan called for dialogue, but only with groups deemed by the regime to be legitimate.

The proposal was rejected outright by the Syrian opposition - including groups tolerated by the regime - and the West.