BEIRUT (AP) — 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 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 anti-regime activists say Syrian forces have mined many of the smuggling routes where weapons flow into Syria — mainly from neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.
Assad, 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 U.N. estimated in March that the violence has killed more than 9,000 people, and hundreds more have been killed since then as a revolt that began with mostly peaceful calls for reform transforms into an armed insurgency.
A group known as the Free Syrian Army is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints and other government sites.
A U.N. observer team with more than 200 members has done little to quell the bloodshed, and some even have been caught up in the violence themselves.
Six observers had to be evacuated from a northern town controlled by the opposition Wednesday, a day after a roadside bomb hit their convoy and left them stranded overnight with rebel forces. None of the observers was wounded, and it was not clear who was behind the attack.
The shooting started as the convoy arrived in the opposition area, said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for international envoy Kofi Annan.
"The U.N. observers were in their cars and heard the shooting but did not witness anyone being killed, nor could they ascertain the direction of the fire," he said. "At the same time, the bomb exploded near one of the vehicles, damaging the hood."
Fawzi said people who had gathered around the observers ducked behind the vehicles, and according to one observer apparently some people were injured when the bomb exploded.
When the shooting subsided, he said, the observers left their vehicles and proceeded on foot to a Free Syrian Army location where they spent the night.
The U.N. said the team was treated well during their stay with rebels and returned to their base in Hama on Wednesday.
As the convoy arrived in the opposition area, the shooting started. The UN observers were in their cars and heard the shooting but did not witness anyone being killed, nor could they ascertain the direction of the fire. At the same time, the bomb exploded near one of the vehicles, damaging the hood. People who had gathered around them ducked behind the vehicles. When the bomb exploded, apparently some of the people were injured, according to an observer. When the shooting subsided, they disembarked and proceeded on foot to the FSA location, where they spent the night.
Assad, 46, denies that there is a popular will behind the uprising, saying foreign extremists and terrorists are driving the revolt.
Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common in Syria, and Western officials say there is little doubt that Islamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, have made inroads in Syria as instability has spread.
The opposition describes Assad's claims as ludicrous, and says the regime's attacks on peaceful protesters led many to take up arms.