Assad is defiant as West ramps up pressure

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

In an interview broadcast yesterday, he said he will never flee his country despite the bloody 19-month-old uprising against him.

The broadcast comes two days after 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 said in the interview with the English-language Russia Today TV.

“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 said.

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.

Mr Cameron has announced Britain will deal directly with Syrian rebel military leaders.

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 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.

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.”

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 on Wednesday, 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 battles 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.

The observatory said it received reports of fresh fighting in the Damascus suburbs yesterday. Two people in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar were wounded by stray bullets from other fighting.