Syrian Troops Repulse Rebel Attack in Aleppo
BEIRUT - Syria's state media said Monday that government troops repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo, one day after President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to fight an opposition driven by what he characterized as religious extremists.
The official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a "terrorist group" in the fighting late Sunday, but did provide a number. The government and the pro-regime media refer to the rebels seeking to topple Assad as terrorists.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles often raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school. Rebels have recently made gains around Aleppo, as well as in the east and in the capital Damascus, bringing the civil war closer to the seat of Assad's power.
In his speech Sunday, Assad sketched out terms for a peace plan but dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition, labeling them "murderous criminals" who he said were responsible for nearly two years of violence. Nearly 60,000 people have died, according to a recent United Nations estimate.
Assad appeared confident and relaxed in the one-hour address - his first public speech in six months. He struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue - but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria." He also vowed to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left."
He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.
Syria's opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.
The West, including the U.S. and Britain, denounced the speech, which came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict.
The foreign minister of Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, hailed Assad's initiative. Ali Akbar Salehi said it contains "solutions" to the conflict and outlines "a comprehensive political process which guarantees the presence of all voices in power." Salehi called on the international community to support Assad's initiative.
"All regional and international partners should help the immediate resolution of the crisis and prevent its spread to the region," Salehi said in a statement that was carried by the state-run IRNA news agency Monday.
Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the bloodshed.
The violence has often spilled over into Syria's neighboring countries, including Turkey.
The Dutch military on Monday shipped Patriot missiles to Turkey, a fellow NATO member, after the alliance agreed in December to deploy the anti-missile systems along Turkey's southern border with Syria.
Once a close ally of Damascus, Ankara has turned into one of the Syrian regime's harshest critics since Assad launched a crackdown on dissent. Turkey requested the missiles to boost its air defenses against possible spillover from Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Assad's initiative and again called on the Syrian leader to relinquish power.
"There is one way out for Bashar and that is to respect the will of the people and do whatever is necessary," Erdogan said at a media conference while visiting Gabon. His remarks were broadcast by Turkish state TV Monday.
Violence has flared along the border in recent months, with Turkey firing artillery across the frontier to retaliate for Syrian shells hitting Turkish soil. In the deadliest cross-border incident, a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town in October.
The two Dutch batteries are scheduled to be operational by the end of the month and will remain in Turkey for a year. They are part of a NATO contingent of Patriot missiles that intercept incoming ballistic missiles. Two U.S. and two German batteries are also being deployed to other parts of southern Turkey.
The Syria conflict began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but has since shifted into a civil war. The conflict has increasingly taken sectarian overtones in the past year, with predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the ruling regime that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.
Fighting continued unabated Monday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels clashed with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Daraya south of the capital. The Observatory said the army sent reinforcements there to join in an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few kilometers (miles) from a strategic military air base west of the capital.
The towns and cities around Damascus have seen relentless fighting in recent weeks as rebels try to push through the government's heavy defenses in the capital. The regime has responded with withering counterattacks that include barrages by artillery and warplanes. The Observatory also reported clashes in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, in the central region of Homs and in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising in March 2011.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.