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Middle East

Assad regime denies defiant comments

Syrian president's office denies quotes attributed to Assad by a Russian news agency saying he would not step down.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2014 13:47
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The three-year civil conflict has killed more than 130,000 people [Reuters]

The Syrian regime has denied reports that President Bashar al-Assad made comments to reporters saying his departure was not up for discussion.

Assad's office rejected the validity of Sunday's report by Russian news agency Interfax in which it attributed a series of defiant comments to the president.

"What the Russian news agency Interfax has published as comments made by President Assad are inaccurate," the Syrian presidency's press office said.

The Interfax report said the comments had been made during a meeting with Russian parliamentarians in the Syrian capital Damascus and translated from Arabic into Russian.

Interfax reported that Assad said: "If we wanted to give up, we would have done so at the very beginning. We are on guard for our country."

It also claimed he replied, "this issue is not under discussion," when asked to comment on Western and opposition calls for him to stand down.

"Only the Syrian people can decide who should take part in elections."

The timing of the now-denied comments would have been a major blow to diplomatic progress, coming as they did nearly immediately after the main opposition to his regime, the Syrian National Coalition, agreed to attend an international peace conference in Geneva with the sole aim of toppling his rule.

The United States has previously stated that the purpose of Geneva II is to discuss a transition government, that could not include Assad if fighting was to come to an end.

The Coalition voted on Saturday by 58 to 14 to attend the peace conference, with only 75 of the around 120 delegates taking part in the secret ballot, a sign that strong disagreement persists.

Coalition leader Ahmad Jarba said the group was going to Switzerland only for the purpose of removing the "butcher" Assad from power.

"The Geneva II negotiation table is a one-way road aimed at achieving all the demands of the revolution... and first and foremost stripping the butcher [Assad] of all his powers," he said.

'Freedom and dignity'

The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idriss, called for a "peaceful resolution" to the Syria war, and urged the opposition to work to end Assad's 14-year grip on power.

Idriss said the "goals of the revolution" must be upheld, and that Assad's "cronies" should also have no future role in Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has consistently emphasised peace cannot be achieved while Assad remains in power, hailed the "courageous" decision by the Colaition to attend the conference, describing it as a "path that will ultimately lead to a better future for all Syrians".

"We all know that the process ahead will be difficult, but I say directly to the Syrian people: we will stand by you every mile of the journey as you seek to achieve the freedom and dignity that all Syrians deserve," Kerry added.

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