Iran denies it has forces in Syria

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Iran denied on Friday it had forces in Syria supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s army, one day after foreign backers of his rebel foes demanded Tehran withdraw its fighters from Syrian territory.

“The true enemies of Syria make up these accusations to provoke the people of this country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said, quoted by Iranian state television.

At a meeting in Jordan on Thursday, the Friends of Syria grouping of Western and Arab governments called for the immediate withdrawal from Syria of Iranian fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

They were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army and militias loyal to Assad in the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

“In response to a question about accusations that Iranian and Hezbollah forces were present in Syria, Abbas Araqchi said Iranian forces have never been and are not present in Syria,” the state television report said.

Iran, a Shi’ite Muslim nation, is Assad’s closest ally and has provided money, weapons, intelligence and training for his forces against a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising in which more than80,000 people have been killed in two years.

Russia and the United States are trying to arrange an international peace conference to end the war. Moscow has said Iran should attend but Western reservations about a role for Tehran already threaten to derail the conference.

Iran has called for elections and reforms in Syria but does not accept Assad’s removal, saying a solution to the crisis cannot be imposed from outside. Tehran has also accused Western and Arab nations of arming opposition groups.

Analysts say that losing its Syrian ally would weaken Iran’s ability to threaten its foe Israel through Hezbollah.

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