Assad says Syria is fighting foreign mercenaries

In his first interview in nearly half a year, Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed Wednesday that his regime had captured foreign mercenaries who were fighting for the opposition in a bid to show his forces were fighting terrorists instead of pro-democracy activists.

Assad spoke in an interview broadcast on Russian state news channel Rossiya-24, signaling he has no intention of softening his position despite an international peace plan that includes a cease-fire.

He said the decision by the Syrian National Council to boycott parliamentary elections earlier this year discredited the opposition group.

"To call for boycotting the elections, that's the equivalent of calling for a boycott of the people," Assad said. "And how can you boycott the people of whom you consider yourself the representative?

"So I don't think that they have any kind of weight or significance within Syria," Assad said in remarks translated into Russian.

Assad said religious extremists and al-Qaida members from abroad are among the forces fighting his government.

"There are foreign mercenaries, some of them still alive. They are being detained and we are preparing to show them to the world," he said.

Assad's last interview was with ABC's Barbara Walters in December.

It was significant that Wednesday's interview was given to Russia state media. Russia has been Syria's most powerful and loyal ally over the course of the uprising, selling weapons to the regime and blocking action against Damascus at the U.N. Security Council.

The Assad regime's crackdown on a 14-month-long popular uprising has left thousands dead and prompted international condemnation. More than 200 U.N. observers have been deployed throughout Syria to monitor a cease-fire agreement, which has been repeatedly violated by both sides since it took effect on April 12.

In a fresh blow to the peace effort, the international monitors have been caught up in the violence as well.

A team of observers was evacuated from a tense town in northern Syria on Wednesday, one day after a roadside bomb hit their convoy and left them stranded overnight with rebel forces, a U.N. spokesman said.

The team's vehicles were struck by the blast Tuesday during a mission in the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun. None of the observers was wounded, but they had to spend the night with rebels in the area.

Tuesday's attack, which came minutes after witnesses said regime forces gunned down mourners at a funeral procession nearby, dealt a fresh blow to international envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan and the U.N. effort to monitor compliance with a troubled cease-fire agreement. The deal already has been tested by relentless violence from both sides, and fears about the observers' safety could raise doubts about its effectiveness.

The bombing was at least the second time the U.N. observers have been caught up in Syria's violence. Last week, a roadside bomb struck a Syrian military truck in the south of the country just seconds after the Norwegian team leader Maj. Gen. Robert Mood rode by in a convoy.

Syria-based U.N. spokesman Hassan Seklawi said U.N. members picked up the team around noon Wednesday.

"They left in one convoy in the direction of Hama," Seklawi said referring to a central city south of Khan Sheikhoun.

Even as violence grips the nation, Assad told the Russian TV station that his country supports his reform agenda.

He pointed to recent parliamentary elections, saying Syrians "up to this time support the course of reform."

The government has praised the May 7 vote as a milestone in promised political reforms. But the opposition boycotted the polls and said they were orchestrated by the regime to strengthen Assad's grip on power.

Also Wednesday, a Turkish official said the situation in Syria and discussions on the possibility of a NATO intervention were bound to come up during a NATO summit in Chicago next week. So far, the international community has shown little appetite for getting involved in another Arab nation in turmoil.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Turkish government regulations, said NATO could become involved if the U.N. Security Council approved an intervention — a move considered unlikely given Russia and China's support of Assad — or if any of the NATO members feels threatened and calls for protection from the alliance.

The official said Turkey would call for NATO protection if "our national security and national interests are threatened or if there is an attack from Syria," though he added "there is no such situation at present."

Syria's state-run TV, meanwhile, reported Wednesday that authorities released 250 people who were involved in the uprising. Assad has issued several pardons releasing thousands of detainees since the crisis began.

The Syrian uprising began with mostly peaceful protests calling for change, but a relentless government crackdown led many in the opposition to take up arms. Some soldiers also have switched sides and joined forces with the rebels.


Heintz reported from Moscow. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.