Assad to speak in rare Syria TV interview

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to lay out his vision of the conflict that has ravaged in country for more than two years in a rare television interview to be broadcast on Wednesday evening.

The interview will air on state television channel Al-Ikhbariya as the country marks Independence Day, celebrating the 1946 end of France’s presence in Syria.

The leader is expected to sound a nationalist note, using the occasion to criticize Western and Arab countries for backing rebels fighting to overthrow his regime.

In a brief extract of the interview, posted on the presidency’s Facebook page ahead of the broadcast, Assad lashes out at Jordan, which his government has accused of allowing rebels free movement across its borders.

“I cannot believe that hundreds (of rebels) are entering Syria with their weapons while Jordan is capable of arresting any single person with a light arm for going to resist in Palestine,” Assad told the station.

Jordan is hosting thousands of Syrian refugees, opening its border to those fleeing the conflict. But Damascus accuses the kingdom of also harboring rebels and allowing them free movement over the border shared by the two Arab countries.

Ahead of the interview, to be broadcast at 1830 GMT, state television showed footage from the French Mandate era (1920-1946), drawing parallels between “the heroes of independence” and the Syrian army today.

“The commemoration of the departure of the last French soldiers is a glowing page in the history of Syria, and the heroes of our brave army are today waging battle against terrorism,” the television said.

Earlier, Syria’s foreign ministry told France to “stop interfering” in the country’s internal affairs, a day after Paris dismissed an amnesty decree issued by Assad, state news agency SANA said.

“The Syrian people will not allow France to return to their country through its support for armed terrorist groups, and by conspiring to cause Syrian bloodshed.”

On Tuesday, Assad issued an decree offering pardons or lighter sentences to army deserters and certain categories of smugglers. But it came with vast exceptions, and does not apply to those taking up arms against the regime.

France swiftly dismissed the news.

“We should be rejoicing. But this regime has made us grow accustomed to its deceptive maneuvers,” said foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.

Meanwhile, staunch Assad ally Russia warned that the Friends of Syria grouping of countries opposed to the regime in Damascus was playing a “negative” role in resolving the conflict.

“Right now we see this process is making a negative contribution to the (Geneva) decisions,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters, referring to a 2012 accord aimed at solving the Syria conflict through talks involving all parties.

“When one party is isolated in any mechanism set up to deal with a conflict, we miss the ground for dialogue,” he said.

Lavrov’s comments came ahead of a key Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on Saturday to be attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as several of his Western and Arab counterparts.

Violence continued in Syria, where the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog, Rami Abdel Rahman, said Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah was involved in the fighting.

“The regime is relying on fighters loyal to Hezbollah and the (pro-regime paramilitary) National Defense Forces to root out rebel fighters in the Homs countryside” in southern Syria, he said.

At least 49 people have been killed in Syria on Wednesday, according to a toll from the Observatory, including 18 civilians, 18 rebels and 13 soldiers.

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