Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, watches judo with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday at the ExCel Centre during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
LONDON - Black-belted Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron locked horns Thursday over Syria and Moscow's crackdown on political opponents in a day of judo diplomacy at the Olympics.
But before the two attended an Olympic judo match, Cameron admitted to reporters at his official residence at 10 Downing Street that Britain and Russia still differed over how to handle the civil conflict gripping Syria.
"There have been some differences in the positions that we have taken over the Syrian conflict," Cameron told reporters.
Western countries want Putin to take a tougher line on Syria, Russia's firmest foothold in the Middle East, and stop blocking Western-backed resolutions aimed at stepping up pressure on President Bashar Assad.
"We both want to see an end to that conflict and a stable Syria and we will discuss with our foreign ministers how to take this agenda forward," he said.
Putin told reporters through a translator that Russia and Britain shared common ground on some areas over Syria.
"We take notice of the fact there are some things that we see eye to eye on and we agreed to continue working to find a viable solution," Putin said.
Before Syrian reinforcement troops can reach Aleppo, the nation's largest city and commercial capital, they are being attacked by rebel forces in Arihah, a city situated on a key route. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Russia's 59-year-old president has also faced pressure over an intensifying Kremlin campaign to silence dissent after members of a women's punk band went on trial and a prominent opposition blogger was charged with embezzlement.
As Putin entered the prime minister's office in central London, one protester screamed: "Free Pussy Riot", which echoed across Downing Street, in reference to the band who sang out an anti-Putin punk prayer in Moscow's main cathedral.
People resisting the army of President Bashar Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.
A one-time judo champion in his native city of St. Petersburg, Putin was likely to be at his combative best during his first visit to Britain in years.
For the Kremlin leader, who revels in his tough-guy image, the sight of judokas body-slamming each other on the Olympic mat offered a powerful backdrop to his talks with Cameron.
Their body language and dynamics will be watched closely for any clues on the progress of the talks.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said he hoped Putin would strip off to take part in the judo.
"Oh, I hope he will take part. What is he, a dab (hand), I think that's what we want to see, stripped to the waist. We want the politicians Olympics, that's what we want," Johnson told reporters.
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Russia has faced growing Western criticism of its position on Syria, with the United States and Britain demanding Moscow drop its support for Assad.
Western powers believe that ousting Assad is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria. Russia, on the other hand, provides arms to Damascus and has blocked three Western resolutions calling for an increase in pressure on Assad.
Apart from Syria, talks will probably touch on Russia's tense political situation where critics say authorities seek to silence Putin's opponents through unfair accusations and trials.
In a letter in The Times newspaper of London (site operates behind a pay wall), a dozen leading rock musicians including Jarvis Cocker urged Putin to give a fair trial to women's rock band Pussy Riot, whose members face up to seven years in jail for protesting inside the Moscow cathedral.
Officially, both sides have said talks would focus on trade.
"The sides will discuss what can be done to boost trade. Apart from this, in the course of the talks, the Syrian situation will be discussed in great detail as well as other regional problems," a Kremlin spokesman said.
Dec. 21, 2009: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shows off his moves with Russia's National Judo Team in St. Petersburg. Dara Brown reports.
"We see it as another possibility ... to explain our arguments, the Russian Federation's clear, consistent and transparent position," the spokesman said.
Thursday's judo bouts include the men's 100 kilogram (220 lbs.) and women's 78 kilogram (172 lbs.) competitions. Russia's Tagir Khaibulaev and Vera Moskalyuk as well as Britain's James Austin and Gemma Gibbons are expected to compete in Thursday match ups.
Putin, whose testosterone-fueled appearances have earned him the nickname "alpha-dog" in U.S. diplomatic cables, is in London - home to many influential Russians and political exiles - on a private visit at Cameron's invitation.
But diplomatic efforts are complicated by Russia's difficult relations with Britain itself, ranging from espionage to human rights to the 2006 death from radiation poisoning in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.
"He (Putin) is not welcome in London, neither by Russians who live here or Londoners themselves," Litvinenko's widow, Marina, who lives in Britain, told Reuters.
"It will not be a comfortable visit for Putin. A lot of uneasy questions will be raised," she said.
Aimed at home audience?
Observers said Putin's show of strength in London could be in part aimed at the audience at home, where Putin has hardened his anti-Western rhetoric in response to a wave of anti-government protests this year.
"From his choice seat at the Olympic Games Mr Putin will be closely watching the international reaction to his latest crackdown," Garry Kasparov, a liberal opposition leader and former world chess champion, wrote in The Times newspaper.
Russian dissidents in London held a small protest outside Russia's embassy ahead of the visit, shouting "Shame on Putin" and "Russia will be free."
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, on his official Twitter account, said: "Interesting today to see if any decent protests against Putin his phony trials of dissenters. Russia even less free speech than here."
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