Spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry engages in rare public discussion with anonymous opposition member.
The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has said Arab troops should be sent to Syria to end the political unrest in the country that the UN says has left more than 5,000 people dead.
In an interview due to be aired on Sunday with US broadcaster CBS for the news programme 60 Minutes, Sheikh Hamad was asked if he was in favour of Arab nations intervening, to which he replied: “For such a situation to stop the killing … some troops should go to stop the killing.”
The interview was recorded in mid-November.
Sheikh Hamad is the first Arab leader to publicly suggest foreign intervention in Syria, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad is now in its tenth month.
Speaking about his own influence on the uprisings in the Arab world, he said: “We are supporting the people of those countries … [who are] asking for justice and dignity.
“If this [is] influence, I think this is a healthy influence. I think all the world should support this.”
Sheikh Hamad’s remarks came as Syrian activists said that at least 26 people were killed across the country during protests supporting the armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, on Friday.
Amateur video posted on YouTube by Ugarit News, an opposition news outlet, purported to show an armoured personnel carrier engulfed in flames in the flashpoint city of Homs on Friday after allegedly being targeted by the group.
The narrator in the video says army defectors attacked the vehicle with a rocket.
The Arabic caption that goes with the video suggests the attack was part of a “special operation by the Free Syrian Army on an armoured personnel carrier after it attacked protesters”.
The content, date, location or authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making activist accounts and amateur videos posted online key sources of information about the uprising and crackdown.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group, said security forces killed one protester in the central city of Hama and another in the town of Ariha in the northwestern province of Idlib, where more than 20,000 people were demonstrating on Friday.
The group reported violence in the southern province of Deraa, the eastern region of Deir ez-Zor and the central province of Homs, all centres of frequent protests.
US sees Iran link
Against this backdrop, a senior US official has accused Iran of aiding Assad’s government in its efforts to crush the uprising.
The official, who did not want to be identified, has told Al Jazeera: “Iran is standing behind the al-Assad regime and continues to provide support to suppress the Syrian people.”
The US has long suspected that the Islamic Republic is aiding Assad as he tries to avoid the fate of other Arab leaders toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings.
“A number of senior Iranian officials have visited Syria to co-ordinate with Syrian officials the repression of Syrian citizens. In addition, Iran has provided security-related equipment – including munitions – to the Syrian security services that is being used against the Syrian people,” the official said.
“It has come to our attention that the Commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, Ghasem Soleimani, was in Damascus, Syria in early January 2012.
“Given Soleimani’s rank within the Iranian government, we are confident that he was received at the highest levels of the Syrian government, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, the visit was likely related to further Iranian support to Syria’s efforts to suppress its people.”
Soleimani has repeatedly been the target of US sanctions.
The accusations come as the US remains locked in confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme and maritime tensions between the two states simmer in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil shipping route.
Signs of direct co-operation between Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Syria came under the spotlight after Mahmoud Souleiman Hajj Hamad, a former official in Assad’s government, accused Iran and Iraq of financially aiding the Syrian crackdown.
He made the allegations at a news conference in Cairo after announcing his defection from the government.
Iran has also been standing firmly by Syria after the Arab League suspended the country over the crackdown on opposition protesters and compelled the Assad government to accept a peace plan.
Iran has been concerned about the possible collapse of Syria, its principal regional ally, a scenario that would leave it even more isolated in its own region amid tigthening nuclear sanctions. It has accused Israel and the US of stirring up trouble in Syria.