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Assad accuses UK of bullying, refuses to step down

March 03, 2013 19:02 IST

Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has rejected suggestions of stepping down, while offering conditional talks with the opposition even as he accused Britain of planning to arm "terrorists" in the war-torn country.

In a rare interview with a UK newspaper, Assad accused the British government of "bullying" and of playing a "famously unconstructive role" in the region.

"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists," 47-year-old Assad told The Sunday Times in a video-taped interview conducted at his Damascus residence, the Al-Muhajireen palace, last week.

The Syrian government had said it is ready for talks with its armed opponents earlier this week.

However, Syrian rebel leader Selim Idris said there could be no negotiations unless Assad stepped down and leaders of the army and security forces were put on trial.

Asked if he would consider stepping down to improve prospects of peace, Assad said, "If this argument is correct, then my departure will stop the fighting. Clearly this is absurd, and recent precedents in Libya, Yemen and Egypt bear witness to this."

The UN says that the raging civil war in Syria, which has been going on for nearly two years, has left nearly 70,000 dead and the West has been calling for Assad's resignation to kick-start a peace process.

British foreign secretary William Hague promised to increase support for the Syrian opposition, including equipment supplies and humanitarian assistance, as US secretary of state John Kerry announced 39 million pounds in funding for rebel forces last week.

The British government is currently bound by an EU arms embargo which European foreign ministers decided not to lift at a meeting in Brussels last month.

In a scathing attack, Assad claimed the West was sacrificing peace talks to push for an end to EU arms embargo, which would allow rebels to be armed.

Warning such a move would accelerate the road to war, the Syrian President rejected the possibility of help from Britain to end the conflict.

"We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter. To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries. The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony," Assad said.

"How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists? This government is acting in a naive, confused and unrealistic manner," he said.

"If they want to play a role they have to change this, they have to act in a more reasonable and more responsible way," he told the Sunday Times.

Fighting continues between Syrian government forces and rebels across the country.

Opposition activists reported fierce clashes around the northern provincial capital of Raqqa and said dozens of people had been killed.

"Syria lies at the fault line geographically, politically, socially and ideologically. So playing with this fault line will have serious repercussions all over the Middle East. Any intervention will not make these things better. It will only make them worse," Assad warned.

"Europe and the United States and others are going to pay the price sooner or later with the instability in this region. They do not foresee it," Assad said.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Sunday reacted to Assad's interview saying the Syrian leader was "delusional" for failing to see that the bloodshed in his country was his own doing.

Hague said that he would later announce more non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition and also refused to rule out arming them in the future.

Britain has been pushing to lift the EU ban on sale of arms to Syrian rebels.

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