Middle East

Syria conflict: Assad accuses UK of bullying

Rebels with wreckage of helicopter near Aleppo. 2 March 2013
Rebels continue to clash with government forces in Aleppo and other cities

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused the British government of bullying and naivety in its approach to the conflict in his country.

In an interview with the UK's Sunday Times newspaper, he said Britain was determined to militarise the situation.

He repeated his conditional offer of talks with the opposition and dismissed suggestions that he might step down.

The UK says it supports the Syrian opposition but does not provide rebels with arms.

However, at a recent Friends of Syria meeting in Rome, Foreign Secretary William Hague said military aid was possible in the future.

Mr Assad, in a rare interview with a Western newspaper, accused UK Prime Minister David Cameron's "naive, confused, unrealistic" government of trying to end an EU arms embargo so that the rebels could be supplied with weapons.

"We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter," he said.

"To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries.

"The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony."

He added: "How can we expect to ask Britain to play a role when it is determined to militarise the problem?

"How can you ask them to play a role in making the situation better, more stable? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supply to the terrorists and don't try to ease the dialogue between the Syrian(s)."

About 70,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising that started almost two years ago. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, fighting is continuing between Syrian government forces and rebels across the country.

Opposition activists reported fierce clashes around the northern provincial capital of Raqqa and said dozens of people had been killed.

Government forces shelled several areas of the city and there were running battles on the outskirts of the city, activists said.

Fighting was also reported at a police academy near the northern city of Aleppo; in the rebel enclave of Daraya and around the capital Damascus.

The violence comes amid the first overseas trip by new US Secretary of State John Kerry.

In the Turkish capital Ankara on Friday, he said the US and Turkey believed "the first priority is to try and have a political solution. We would like to save lives, not see them caught up in a continuing war".

But the BBC's Jim Muir, monitoring the conflict from Beirut, says that despite the huge amount of diplomacy going on, there is little actual movement.

War is continuing all over the country, he adds.

The main Syrian opposition alliance, the National Coalition, has dismissed offers of talks with the government while President Assad remains in power.

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