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The Mideast

Syria's Assad says rebels will be defeated

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In this Saturday, Sept 8, 2012 photo, Free Syrian Army soldiers help a severely wounded fighter after he was shot by a Syrian Army sniper in the Izaa district of Aleppo, Syria. Syrian activists say President Bashar Assad's regime pounded Aleppo with warplanes and artillery shelling Saturday as ground forces seeking to regain momentum in the country's largest city advanced on three neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo) (AP2012)

The Syrian president said in remarks published Friday that he is adamant his regime will not fall and he also lashed out at Gulf countries, which he accused of using their enormous oil wealth to try to drive him from power.

Bashar Assad's comments came as an opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, accused the regime of being behind the disappearance of two of its leaders.

Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir and Ayas Ayyash were expected to take part in a conference Sunday in Damascus by some 20 Syrian groups that are calling for Assad to step down. But they disappeared Thursday along with a friend who had picked them up at Damascus International Airport, the group said.

The group's head, Hassan Abdul-Azim, told The Associated Press by telephone that the regime was believed to be behind the disappearance.

Syria's crisis began in March last year with anti-government demonstrations inspired by the Arab Spring and demanding reforms. The protests were met with a brutal crackdown by the regime. Syria later became embroiled in a civil war between forces fighting for Assad and those trying to topple him.

Activists now say that nearly 30,000 people have been killed since the crisis began, the vast majority of them civilians.

After Assad's remarks were published, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told state-run TV on Friday that the president had received nine Egyptian journalists and had a chat with them about the latest developments in the country.

The minister said none of the journalists took notes as the meeting was considered a "personal visit," but a reporter for the weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi published some of what was said.

The weekly quoted Assad as saying that the rebels "will not succeed" and that a foreign military intervention such as the one that helped topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will "not be repeated" in Syria.

In his remarks, Assad also launched one of his harshest attacks on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been among his strongest critics and backers of the opposition, saying they are trying to influence the region with their money.

"They think their money can buy geography, history and a regional role," Assad said, according to the Egyptian weekly.

"They are giving terrorists weapons and money with hope of repeating the Libyan model," Assad added. "Instead of helping regional stability, they are supplying armed elements with weapons and training in order to weaken the Syrian state."

The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Gulf's Sunni rulers to bolster their influence and possibly leave Shiite powerhouse Iran without its critical alliances that flow through Damascus. Assad's regime, which is allied strongly with Iran, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Syria's ties with the Gulf nations have been strained in the past -- Assad once called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders "half men" for being critical of Hezbollah over the 34-day war between the Lebanese Shiite militant group and Israel in 2006.

In the briefing, Assad added that the only way to solve the Syrian crisis is through "dialogue with the opposition" and that the "door for dialogue is open."

Most Syrian opposition groups reject any talks with the regime, saying they will not accept anything less than Assad's departure from power and the dissolving of his regime's security agencies.

Abdul-Azim, the opposition leader, repeated that stance and said the opposition wants a "new regime that represents the will of the people."

He added his group will go ahead with the plans for Sunday's opposition conference despite the disappearance of the two leaders. The gathering will invite European ambassadors, envoys from China and Russia, which back the regime.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that nearly 30,000 Syrians have been killed during the 18-month uprising against the Assad regime, providing an updated death toll.

The Observatory's count includes 20,935 civilians; 1,153 army defectors fighting alongside the rebels; and 7,141 Syrian troops fighting for the Assad regime -- which gives a total of 29,229, said the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman.

The list is compiled from reports by witnesses and medical staff, he said, adding that he only includes those identified by name or whose death was authenticated by amateur video. Several thousand who are presumed dead, including pro-Assad troops, have been kept off the list because the bodies could not be identified.

Another Syrian opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the overall death toll at 26,405. However, its count does not include Syrian troops killed in battle. The LCC relies on a network of activists in Syria to collect its information.

Fighting in Syria has intensified in recent week, with the regime increasingly relying on airstrikes to try to drive rebels out of territory they are holding, particularly in the country's north. The air attacks, along with the use of heavy weapons by some of the rebels, have driven up the daily death toll, said Abdul-Rahman.

On Thursday, more than 250 people were killed, including 199 civilians, five army defectors and 46 regimes soldiers, Abdul-Rahman said. August has been the bloodiest month so far, with nearly 5,000 dead.

Meanwhile, in Syria's northeastern town of Ein al-Arab, a gunman on a motorcycle shot dead a leading Kurdish opposition figure, Mahmoud Wali, also known as Abu Jandi, as he walked out of his office late Thursday, Kurdish activists Mustafa Osso and Ibrahim Issa said.

Wali was a senior member of the Kurdish National Council, which includes several Kurdish groups.

Osso said it is still not clear who was behind what he said was a "political assassination."

On Friday, activists reported clashes and shelling in different areas around Syria, with the fighting being most intense in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial capital. The fighting there came a day after regime airstrikes hit a gas station in northern Syria, setting off a fiery explosion that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens.