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Assad accuses West of backing al-Qaida in Syria

Thursday - 4/18/2013, 3:10am  ET

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA on Wednesday, April 17, 2013, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, during an interview broadcast on Syrian state television in Damascus, Syria. Syria's president accused the West on Wednesday of backing al-Qaida in his country's civil war, warning it will pay a price "in the heart" of Europe and the United States as the terror network becomes emboldened. Bashar Assad also lashed out at Jordan for allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria through its borders. The rare TV interview comes as the embattled president's military is fighting to reverse rebel advances, with a rocket attack killing at least 12 people in a central village on Wednesday. (AP Photo/SANA)

ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria's president accused the West on Wednesday of backing al-Qaida in his country's civil war, warning it will pay a price "in the heart" of Europe and the United States as the terror network becomes emboldened.

Bashar Assad also lashed out at Jordan for allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria through its borders and warned that the "fire will not stop at Syria's border."

The rare TV interview with the government-run Al-Ikhbariya channel marking Syria's independence day comes as the embattled president's military is fighting to reverse rebel advances, with a rocket attack killing at least 12 people in a central village on Wednesday.

"Just as the West financed al-Qaida in Afghanistan in its beginnings, and later paid a heavy price, today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places and will pay the price later in the heart of Europe and the United States," Assad said.

He offered no evidence to back his charge that the U.S. was now backing the international terror group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Extremist groups such as the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are gaining ground in Syria's two-year civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, has emerged as the most effective force among the mosaic of rebel units fighting to topple Assad.

Last week, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Gonali pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Washington has designated Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization over its links with al-Qaida. The Obama administration opposes directly arming Syrian opposition fighters, in part out of fear that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists such as the Nusra Front.

Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a $60 million non-lethal assistance package for Syria that includes meals and medical supplies for the armed opposition.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized an upcoming meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul -- which brings together Western and Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition -- and said efforts to isolate Assad and to arm the opposition were strengthening Islamic militants.

"If the priority is peace, changes and democratic reforms, it's necessary to force the warring parties to sit down for talks. If Assad's departure is the priority, the cost of such geopolitical approach will be more casualties," Lavrov said.

"If we allow those making the emphasis on (a) military solution to control the situation, those horrors ... will multiply and the terrorists' influence in the region will grow," he added.

The Syrian conflict began with largely peaceful protests demanding reforms and eventually turned into an insurgency and war in response to a brutal military crackdown on the protesters. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.

In the hour-long interview, Assad also criticized Jordan, accusing it of allowing "thousands" of fighters to enter Syria across its borders.

His comments follow statements from U.S. and other Western and Arab officials that Jordan has been facilitating arms shipments and hosting training camps for Syrian rebels since last October.

"It's hard to believe that thousands are entering Syria with their equipment (from Jordan) when Jordan is capable of stopping or arresting a single person carrying light arms for the resistance in Palestine," Assad said.

Over the years, Syria has called Jordan a "puppet" of America because of its strong alliance with the United States. It's also accused Jordan of being a "spy" for Israel, with which Jordan maintains cordial ties under a peace treaty signed in 1994.

Assad said that Syria has sent two envoys to Jordan in the past two months to warn Jordanian officials about the dangers of the flow of fighters into Syria. He said Jordanian officials denied the reports and that their statements were "not convincing."

"We hope that Jordanian officials ... will be more aware because the fire will not stop at our border and everyone knows that Jordan is as exposed as Syria," Assad said.

On Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress that the Pentagon is sending about 200 soldiers from a U.S. Army headquarters unit to Jordan to assist efforts to contain violence along the Syrian border and plan for any operations needed to ensure the safety of chemical weapons in Syria.

The 1st Armored Division troops will replace a similar number of U.S. forces that have been in Jordan for some months. They will include specialists in intelligence, logistics and operations. Sending a cohesive headquarters unit will enhance the troops' ability to respond to any security needs.

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