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Syrian leader says foreigners are behind unrest

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In his first interview since December, Syrian President Bashar Assad insisted Tuesday his regime is fighting back against foreign mercenaries who want to overthrow him, not innocent Syrians aspiring for democracy in a yearlong uprising.

The interview with Russian TV showed that Assad is still standing his ground, despite widespread international condemnation over his deadly crackdown on dissent.

"There are foreign mercenaries, some of them still alive," Assad said in an interview broadcast Wednesday on Russian state news channel Rossiya-24. "They are being detained, and we are preparing to show them to the world."

Assad also cautioned against meddling in Syria, warning neighboring nations that have served as transit points for contraband weapons being smuggled into the country that "if you sow chaos in Syria, you may be infected by it yourself."

He did not elaborate, but rebels and antiregime activists say Syrian forces have mined many of the smuggling routes where weapons flow into Syria, mainly from Turkey and Lebanon.

Assad, 46, who inherited power from his father in 2000, still has a firm grip on power in Syria some 14 months into a revolt that has torn at the country's fabric and threatened to undermine stability in the Middle East.

The United Nations estimated in March that the violence has killed more than 9,000 people, and hundreds more have been killed since then.

The opposition describes Assad's claims as ludicrous and says the regime's attacks on peaceful protesters led many to take up arms.

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

Syrian leader says foreigners are behind unrest 05/16/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 11:32pm]
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