Assad refuses to quit as foes advance
DAMASCUS, Syria - President Bashar al-Assad insisted he will not step down and blasted Britain's support for his armed foes who reportedly killed dozens of soldiers on Sunday, March 3 in attacks on a police academy in northern Syria.
"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms," Assad told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, in a rare interview conducted last week at his Al-Muhajireen palace in Damascus.
"We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists," he said in the videotaped interview.
His offer of talks was aired as UN chief Ban Ki-moon and his Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said they were prepared to broker peace talks between the Assad regime and the opposition.
A joint statement by the pair said the UN would "be prepared to facilitate a dialogue between a strong and representative delegation from the opposition and a credible and empowered delegation from the Syrian government".
The offer came after both sides in Syria had indicated a "willingness to engage in dialogue", the UN said.
In Iran, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that Assad, a close ally of Tehran, would contest a presidential election next year and it was up to the Syrian people to choose their own leader.
Syria is locked in a two-year-old conflict in which the United Nations estimates more than 70,000 have been killed. But Assad rejected the idea of standing down to end the bloodshed.
"If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting," the president told The Sunday Times. "Clearly this is absurd, and other recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this."
Assad turned his sights on Britain, accusing London of seeking to arm the rebels.
"How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists and don't try to ease the dialogue between the Syrians?" he asked.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for changes to a European arms embargo on Syria "so that we can provide a broader range of support to the National Coalition", the opposition umbrella group.
Assad ruled out any mediation role for Britain, saying: "We don't expect an arsonist to be a firefighter."
On a reported Israeli air strike near Damascus in January, Assad said his country would retaliate. "Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced," he said.
Police academy, prison attacks
On the ground in the mainly opposition-held north, rebels on Sunday killed more than 34 government forces in an attack on a sprawling police academy in Aleppo province, a monitoring group said.
They "seized control at dawn of large parts of the police academy" in Khan al-Assal, after eight days of fierce fighting for one of the regime's last bastions in the west of Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The week-long battle for the town's police academy had so far claimed almost 200 lives, including those of around 120 soldiers.
The Britain-based Observatory also reported that Jihadist fighters seized control of a prison in Raqa province on Saturday night, freeing "hundreds" of detainees on Saturday night.
"Government forces pulled out of Raqa's central prison located in the northern part of the provincial capital after clashes that lasted days," said the group, which relies on a vast network of activists on the ground and medics for its information.
The prison takeover came as battles raged Saturday on the outskirts of the city of Raqa between rebels and Syrian troops, the Observatory said.
Sixteen rebels and 14 soldiers were killed in the fighting, which the Observatory said was "the most violent in the region" since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011.
In the oil-rich northeastern province of Hassakeh, Kurdish militants captured the towns of Ramilan and Qahtaniyeh from government forces, said the group.
A total of 182 people were killed in violence across Syria on Saturday, including 83 rebels and two Palestinians hanged at the Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus on suspicion of aiding the regime, it said in an updated toll.
The Observatory circulated a picture of the hangings. - Rappler.com