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Assad says Britain wants to arm terrorists in Syria

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Britain of wanting to arm terrorists in his country as the UN chief and his Syria envoy offer to broker peace talks between the regime and rebel leaders.

Britain has been pushing to lift a ban on the sale of arms to Syria's rebels, but at a meeting last month European Union foreign ministers ruled that only "non-lethal" aid and "technical assistance" could be given to the opposition.

"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?" Assad said in a rare interview with a UK newspaper.

"Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in different issues for decades, some say for centuries -- I'm telling you the perception in our region," he told The Sunday Times.

"The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of a bullying hegemony."

His comments came 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.

They also warned that both the regime and opposition fighters "have become increasingly reckless with human life" and said perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice.

In Tehran on Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Assad will take part in next year's presidential election and that it is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leader.

Assad, who took over as president in 2000 following the death of his father Hafez, has repeatedly rejected calls by the opposition, Western and Arab nations to step down.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague had called for changes to the existing arms ban "so that we can provide a broader range of support to the National Coalition" -- the opposition umbrella group in Syria.

British is currently bound by an EU arms embargo which European foreign ministers decided not to lift at a meeting in Brussels on February 18.

"We give them strong political and diplomatic support. We also give them assistance in terms of equipment at the moment to help them try to save people's lives," Hague said.

"I think there is a broader range of equipment that we could give to them," he added.

The United Nations estimates 70,000 people have been killed in the 23-month conflict.

In his video-taped interview Assad dismissed the suggestion that Britain could play a constructive role in resolving the fighting, saying: "We don't expect an arsonist to be a firefighter."

He added that the British government had long been out of contact with Syria and lacked credibility in the country due to its dealings in the Middle East.

Damascus has repeatedly blamed foreign-backed "terrorists" for the unrest, using the term to refer both to rebels and peaceful opponents.

On the ground, the army said Saturday it had seized control of a key road linking the central province of Hama to Aleppo international airport, the scene of fierce battles since mid-February.

Fierce clashes raged in the northern city of Raqa, where 16 rebels and 10 soldiers were killed, according to chief of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman.

At least 133 people were killed nationwide on Saturday, the Observatory said.

They included two Palestinians hanged by rebels from trees at Yarmuk refugee camp in Damascus on suspicion of aiding the regime by pinpointing rebel targets, the Observatory said.

The Israeli military said mortar rounds believed to have been fired from Syria hit the southern Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Saturday without causing damage or casualties.

The Observatory said there had also been clashes in the Quneitra area, with two rebels and an unknown number of soldiers killed.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130302/assad-says-britain-wants-arm-terrorists-syria-1