Enniskillen: The war in Syria dominated the start of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday as Western leaders upped pressure on Russia to back away from its support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia dismissed rumoured Western moves to establish a no-fly zone over Syria to help the rebel forces fighting Assad while host Prime Minister David Cameron pushed for progress on a peace conference.
On a brighter note the the European Union and the United States announced the formal start of negotiations on the world`s biggest free trade pact, in a bid to boost growth and create jobs in the flagging global economy.
But the focus was on potentially spiky talks on Syria between President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama at a picturesque golf resort on the banks of Lough Erne.
Since Washington declared it would supply military assistance to rebels after finding that the regime had used chemical weapons, Obama and Putin are now offering military support to opposing sides in the war.
Cameron wanted the summit to focus on efforts to crack down on tax evasion and force multinational companies to be more transparent, but the bloody conflict in Syria threatened to overshadow everything else.
The British premier said his priority in the session dedicated to Syria later on Monday was to ensure that a peace conference on the conflict takes place later this year in Geneva.
"What we do need to do is bring about this peace conference and this transition, so that people in Syria can have a government that represents them, rather than a government that`s trying to butcher them," Cameron said in a round of television interviews.
Washington and Moscow have been pushing for Syria`s regime and the opposition to hold peace talks in Geneva, but the efforts have so far been fruitless.
In his talks with Putin, Obama will emphasise that Washington wants to keep alive the proposed peace conference in Geneva, which appears to be slipping down the list of priorities.
But on the eve of the summit Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear that few G8 leaders expected Putin to change his position.
"I don`t think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one," Harper told reporters in Dublin.
"Unless there`s a big shift of position on his part, we`re not going to get a common position with him at the G8."
French President Francois Hollande also criticised Russia for arming Syria`s regime before he met Putin.
"How can we accept that Russia continues to deliver arms to Bashar al-Assad`s regime while the opposition receives very few and is being massacred?" Hollande told journalists.
Awkward questions over spying allegations
The gloom over Syria was briefly lifted by the announcement about negotiations on a transatlantic trade pact.
"This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it," Cameron said, before Obama revealed that the first round of negotiations would take place in Washington next month.
EU nations agreed to go ahead with the talks after late-night discussions in Luxembourg on Friday to convince France that its prized cultural industries would not be under threat from the pact.
Officials have said the deal could be worth more than 200 billion euros ($265 billion) annually to the European and US economies.
Obama went straight from landing in Belfast to give a speech to 2,000 mostly young people in which he urged them to preserve Northern Ireland`s hard-won peace.
Thousands of extra police officers have been deployed to guard the summit, in the biggest security operation in Northern Ireland`s troubled history.
Cameron is hosting Obama, Putin, Hollande, Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
The British premier faced awkward questions after documents leaked by US former spy Edward Snowden appeared to show that Britain spied on foreign delegates at the 2009 London G20 meetings.
Among the officials targeted were delegates from NATO ally Turkey and from fellow Commonwealth state South Africa, according to British newspaper The Guardian.
Turkey summoned Britain`s charge d`affaires to explain allegations that London spied on Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek`s emails and phone calls.
Asked whether he could guarantee his guests that no similar operation was in place as they gathered at Lough Erne, Cameron would not be drawn.
"We never comment on security or intelligence issues and I am not about to start now," he said.