I'll live and die in Syria, says Assad


Syrian President Bashar Assad has vowed defiantly to “live and die” in Syria.

He said in an interview broadcast today that he will never flee his country despite the bloody, 19-month-old uprising against him.

The broadcast comes two days after British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Mr Assad could be allowed safe passage out of the country if that would guarantee an end to the civil war, which activists estimate has killed more than 36,000 people.

"I am not a puppet, I was not made by the West for me to go to the West or any other country," Mr Assad, 47, said in the interview with the English-language Russia Today TV. He spoke in English and excerpts of the interview were posted on the station's website with an Arabic voice-over.

"I am Syrian, I am made in Syria, and I will live and die in Syria," he said.

Mr Assad also warned against foreign military intervention at a time when the West is taking steps to boost the opposition.

"I don't think the West is headed in this direction. But if it does, nobody can predict the consequences," he told the station. The full interview will be broadcast tomorrow, the station said.

The excerpts show Mr Assad casually talking and later walking with RT's reporter outside a house, wearing a grey suit and tie. It was not clear where the interview took place.

The uprising against his regime began as mostly peaceful protests in March last year but quickly morphed into a civil war. The fighting has taken on grim sectarian tones, with the predominantly Sunni rebels fighting government forces. Mr Assad's regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Yesterday Mr Cameron announced his country will deal directly with Syrian rebel military leaders. He spoke during a trip to visit Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Previously, Britain and the US have acknowledged contacts only with exile groups and political opposition figures - some connected to rebel forces - inside Syria.

He called on the US to join his country in doing more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying the re-election of President Barack Obama is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.

The US has been pressing for a new, more unified opposition leadership that will minimise the role of exiles and better represent those risking their lives on the frontlines. The initiative was being discussed today at an opposition conference in the Qatari capital of Doha.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose government has remained one of Syria's most loyal and powerful allies, criticised the West for supporting the opposition, saying foreign powers should try to force both sides to stop fighting. Russia has shielded Damascus from strong international action at the UN Security Council.

He said Moscow would not support any resolution that would threaten the Syrian regime with sanctions.

"If their priority is, figuratively speaking, Assad's head, the supporters of such approach must realise that the price for that will be lives of the Syrians, not their own lives," Mr Lavrov said. "Bashar Assad isn't going anywhere and will never leave, no matter what they say. He can't be persuaded to take that step."

Mr Assad has rarely appeared in public since the revolt began in March 2011. Last month, state TV showed him attending prayers for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in Al-Afram Mosque in Al-Muhajireen district of Damascus, sitting on the floor and praying. He later was seen smiling and shaking hands with worshippers.

In several televised speeches this year, Mr Assad has blamed the uprising on a foreign plot to destroy Syria and accused rebels of being mercenaries of the West and Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The daily death toll in the civil war has been averaging 100 people or more recently, killed in clashes between rebels and troops, and in artillery shelling and regime airstrikes on rebel-held areas.

At least 104 people were killed in fighting yesterday, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that relies on reports from activists on the ground.

Most casualties - 31 people - were killed in the fighting between rebels and government troops in the suburbs Damascus as the rebels made a new push into the capital firing mortars at a presidential palace and a Palestinian refugee camp, said Rami-Abdul Rahman, the Observatory's chief.

Four rebels were also killed in clashes with a pro-government faction in the Palestinian refugee camp in the capital, said Mr Abdul-Rahman, adding that at least 30 soldiers were also killed that day, including 10 in Damascus and on its outskirts.

The Observatory said it has received reports of fresh fighting in the Damascus suburbs and in the neighbourhood of Souseh in the capital today. It also said there were heavy clashes between anti-government gunmen and troops in northern Idlib province and in Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

Regime forces also battled opposition fighters trying to take control of a region in the far north-eastern corner of the country, Turkey's state-run agency reported. Two people in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar were wounded by stray bullets from the fighting.

More than 111,000 Syrians are being sheltered in refugee camps in Turkey.