Syria: Bullish Assad vows to fight on as army continues crackdown

Syria’s president has defied mounting international pressure to end the year-old crackdown on an uprising against him, saying yesterday he was determined to go on fighting what he called “foreign-backed terrorism”.

President Bashar al-Assad said: “The Syrian people, who have in the past managed to crush foreign plots … have again proven their ability to defend the nation and to build a new Syria through their determination to pursue reforms while confronting foreign-backed terrorism.”

After ploughing through Homs, the military crackdown has turned to southern Daraa province, where the uprising began a year ago. Troops yesterday shelled a village in Daraa and clashed with military defectors.

Activists said the military also blasted a bridge and a tunnel near the border with Lebanon used as escape routes for the wounded and other refugees. Thousands of Syrians have crossed the border in the past few days, since Homs was retaken by the regime.

The UN says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising started in March 2011. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.

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Elsewhere, another high-ranking officer defected from the government’s military. Brigadier General Adnan Qassem Farzat appeared on a video released on YouTube, saying he felt compelled to desert because the intensified bombardment of rebel-held areas is “not the values of the Syrian Army”.

Brig Gen Farzat, thought to be in his 50s, said he was from Rastan, a besieged rebel stronghold in Homs province, where the crackdown on the uprising against 40 years of Assad family rule has been especially fierce.

In the video he said: “I am the Brigadier General Adnan Qassem Farzat … and I announce my defection from the Syrian military and that I have joined the Free Syrian Arab Army.”

He held up an officer identification card but it did not specify his rank. His hometown was one of the first to fall into rebel hands. Since then it has been swamped by fighting and retaken by the army several times.

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He said: “I informed some [Syrian Army] commanders that Rastan is being hit by artillery fire, and in spite of this the bombardment continued violently. Houses have been destroyed and women and children have been killed. These are not the values of the Syrian Army and for this reason I am defecting.”

It was unclear if he planned to fight from Rastan or head abroad to lead operations.

The two leading defected officers in the Free Syrian Army, Lieutenant Colonel Riad al-Asaad and Brigadier General Mustafa Sheikh, have been operating from southern Turkey.

European governments are now discussing whether to expel Syrian ambassadors from their respective countries in response to the regime’s actions against its own people, the French government said yesterday.

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A foreign ministry spokesman said Syria’s ambassador to France had not yet been asked to leave, but talks were taking place to remove Syrian envoys from other European capitals.

“At this stage we’re not there yet,” he said, adding that the decision could be taken on an individual country basis.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that Mr Assad, unlike his father and predecessor, will not escape punishment for the violence he has inflicted. Turkey and Syria, which share a border, were allies before the uprising began.

He said: “His father was not made to account for what he did in this world, but his son will sooner or later account for what he did, for the massacre and the oppression. This time, the blood shed in Syrian cities will not go unpunished.”

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Meanwhile, a senior Russian diplomat said Moscow was sticking to its position and urged the West to press the opposition to stop fighting Mr Assad’s regime.

Both Russia and China fear a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria could lead to military intervention against Mr Assad, as it did last year against Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya.