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At G-8, Putin rejects calls to halt Assad support

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland -- Deep differences over Syria's fierce civil war clouded a summit of world leaders Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly rejecting calls from the United States, Britain and France to halt his political and military support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad's regime.

But there were also fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling -- at least for now -- to join President Barack Obama in arming the Syrian rebels, a step the U.S. president reluctantly finalized last week.

The debate over the Syria conflict loomed large as the two-day summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations opened Monday at a lakeside resort in Northern Ireland. The lack of consensus even among allies underscored the vexing nature of the two-year conflict in Syria, where at least 93,000 people have been killed as rebels struggle to overtake Assad forces buttressed by support from Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.

Obama and Putin did little to hide their differing views on the matter while speaking to reporters following a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the summit Monday night.

The two-hour meeting was the first time the leaders have met in person since last year.

"We do have different perspectives on the problem," Obama said plainly of their divergent views on Syria.

The Russian leader, speaking through a translator, agreed, saying, "our opinions do not coincide."

Despite their seemingly intractable differences, Obama and Putin did express a shared desire to stop the violence in Syria and convene a political conference in Geneva, Switzerland, next month. But it's unclear who would participate in such a meeting or whether the rebels, given their weakened position, would have any leverage if they did.

European Union and U.S. leaders also announced plans Monday to open negotiations next month on a long-sought deal to create free trade between the world's two mightiest economic regions, an effort designed to create millions of jobs that could take years to transform from dream to reality.

"America and Europe have done extraordinary things before and I believe we can forge an economic alliance as strong as our diplomatic and security alliances, which of course are the most powerful in history," Obama declared alongside EU leaders and the British host, Prime Minister David Cameron.

At stake is a vision of boosting the value of trans-Atlantic trade in goods and services that Obama said already exceeds $1 trillion annually, as well as $4 trillion annually in investment in each other's economies.

EU and U.S. officials agreed these already colossal trade figures could be much higher if only both sides agreed to dismantle high tariff walls and bureaucratic hurdles that undermine the export of many products.

"The whole point is to fire up our economies and drive growth and prosperity around the world -- and there is no more powerful way to achieve that than by boosting trade," Cameron said against a backdrop of Northern Ireland's lush Fermanagh Lakeland, where the two-day summit at an isolated golf resort concludes Tuesday.

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