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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a speech during the opening ceremony of the 22nd World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, Turkey, July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer


By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior Republican U.S. senators criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday for saying that Russia may have the "right approach" on Syria and for what they called his lack of focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"His statements about Syria really disturb me. No, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin does not have it right when it comes to Syria," Senator Lindsey Graham said.

In separate television interviews, Graham and Senator John McCain, prominent Republican foreign policy voices, took aim at Tillerson's remarks last week that Russia may have "got the right approach" and the United States the wrong approach to Syria.

Russia has backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war, while the United States supports rebel groups trying to overthrow him.

McCain told CBS' "Face the Nation" that he "sometimes" regretted backing Tillerson's nomination by Republican President Donald Trump and that his comments on Russia being "right" on Syria made him emotional and upset.

"I know what the slaughter has been like. I know that the Russians knew that Bashar Assad was going to use chemical weapons. And to say that maybe we've got the wrong approach?" he said.

Both senators backed the nomination of Tillerson in January, even while expressing concern about his dealings with Russia when he was chief executive of ExxonMobil.

Graham, who visited Afghanistan and Pakistan last week with McCain, accused Tillerson of being "AWOL" on the two countries and failing to fill key State Department posts.

"I am so worried about the State Department,” Graham said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

A State Department official responded to the criticism of Tillerson by saying that a U.S.-Russian-brokered ceasefire for southwest Syria was an example of what the secretary had described as the potential to coordinate with Russia, in spite of unresolved differences, "to produce stability and serve our mutual security interests."

The official, who did not want to be identified, also said the State Department was taking an active role in a review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy and continued to work with the White House on nominations.

Since the exit of most foreign troops in 2014, Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government has lost ground to a Taliban insurgency in a war that kills and maims thousands of civilians each year.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Additional reporting by Arsghad Mohammed and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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