Syria's Assad says he won't step down before election, raising new questions about diplomacy

Syrian President Bashar Assad says he won't step down before elections are held in his war-ravaged country.

The Syrian leader's comments, published Saturday in the Argentine newspaper Clarin, highlight the difficulties the U.S. and Russia face in getting the Assad regime and Syria's political opposition to the table at an international conference envisioned for next month.

The country's main opposition group has demanded that these talks lead to Assad's departure.

However, Assad says such a dialogue shouldn't "decide a matter that has not been decided by the people."

Assad likened himself to a ship captain in turbulent seas, saying: "I am not someone who flees from my responsibilities."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

Gunmen on Saturday abducted the elderly father of Syria's deputy foreign minister, the official's office said, in the latest kidnapping targeting family members of figures in President Bashar Assad's regime.

The father of Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was seized Saturday in the village of Ghossom in the southern province of Daraa, Mekdad's office said. An official in the office said the man is in his 80s, but he did not know his name.

The abduction was also reported by Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has several reporters in Syria and is seen as sympathetic to the regime.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but armed opposition groups in Syria have targeted senior regime officials or members of their families in the past for kidnapping or assassination in the past.

Last year, rebels carried out one of the highest-profile attacks against regime officials to date, detonating a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting that killed four advisers of Assad, including the defense minister and the president's brother-in-law.

The uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war that has left tens of thousands dead and several million displaced.

Lack of unity among rebel fighters has characterized the armed conflict from the start, and there were new signs Saturday that infighting is on the rise.

Activists on Saturday reported a wave of mutual kidnappings between rival Islamic militant groups in the northern city of Aleppo after clashes killed at least four rebel fighters.

The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said a coalition of rebel groups known as the Judicial Council had accused another armed opposition faction, the Ghurabaa al-Sham, of plundering factories in Aleppo's industrial neighborhood. Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial center, is split between rebel and government control.

Any internal fighting between rebels in the city would play into the hands of the regime, which is trying to tarnish the image of the opposition by saying it is dominated by extremists linked to al-Qaida network.

Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, has been engulfed in heavy fighting since rebels launched an assault there in July and captured several neighborhoods. Over the past few weeks, regime forces have been pursuing an offensive in the city, mainly focused on pushing the rebels from around the international airport and a nearby military air base.

Abdul-Rahman said tensions among rebel factions have been rising in opposition-held areas, mostly on the eastern side of the city.

The two groups, the Judicial Council and the Ghurabaa al-Sham, clashed on Tuesday near Aleppo in fighting that left four members of the Judicial Council dead, Abldul-Rahman said. He added that the Judicial Council is now holding dozens of members of Ghurabaa al-Sham captive.

Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said Ghurabaa al-Sham withdrew its fighters from several neighborhoods, including the industrial area.

Saeed said Ghurabaa al-Sham released all Judicial Council members it was holding while the other group refused to set free Ghuarbaa al-Sham members and is still holding them.

"The situation is very tense in Aleppo," said Abdul-Rahman, who relies on a network of activists around the country.

He said that Ghurabaa al-Sham has warned it will bring some of its members from outside the city to fight against the Judicial Council if its members are not freed.

The Judicial Council is an umbrella organization that includes the Tawheed Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra — one of the most effective forces among the mosaic of rebel brigades fighting to topple Assad in Syria's civil war.

The Observatory also reported that rebels captured several villages late Friday in the central province of Hama after weeks of fighting with government troops. It said the villages were inhabited by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It said the Alawite villages — Tleisiyeh, Zaghba, Shaata and Balil — are all on the eastern side of the central province. The Observatory said residents fled the area captured by rebels.

The uprising against Assad became an outlet for long-suppressed grievances, mostly by poor Sunnis from marginalized areas.

Earlier this month, activists reported that troops and pro-government Alawite gunmen killed more than 100 people in Sunnis areas in the coastal city of Banias and the nearby town of Bayda. The violence in Banias and Bayda bears a close resemblance to two reported mass killings last year in Houla and Qubeir, Sunni villages surrounded by Alawite towns.

Many of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad today say they want to replace his government with an Islamic state.

The Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella opposition group, said government forces are currently besieging the towns of Halfaya and Aqrab in Hama and have shut down communications in the area.

"Civilians in those areas are now cut off from contact with the outside world, and lives are in extreme danger," the coalition said.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported intense clashes around the town of Qusair near the Lebanon border. Syrian opposition groups say members of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group are taking part in the fighting along with Assad's forces.


Aji reported from Damascus, Syria