Russia says Assad 'not bluffing' about staying put

Friday - 3/8/2013, 4:03pm EST

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad "is not bluffing" about his determination to stay in power, Russia's foreign minister said in comments broadcast Friday, as the United Nations said arrangements had been made for the release of 21 U.N. peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels.

Also, the World Food Program said it aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians by next month, up from 1.7 million now. Need has risen sharply as growing numbers of Syrians are displaced by the civil war and as the country's economy disintegrates in the face of the chaos.

The uprising against Assad began two years ago with largely peaceful protests, but shifted into a brutal civil war after a harsh government crackdown on dissent. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.

The conflict has been deadlocked for months, with neither side able to gain the upper hand, although the rebels have scored a series of strategic victories in recent weeks, seizing a provincial capital in the northeast, capturing the country's largest dam and overrunning a number of smaller military bases.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC in an interview broadcast Friday that the Syrian leader is digging in and "is not going to leave."

"We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing," Lavrov said.

He added that Russia, a close Syria ally, will not pressure Assad to leave.

"It's not for me to decide, it's not for anybody else to decide, except the Syrian people," Lavrov said.

Syria's opposition has criticized the West for not helping arm rebel fighters even as Russia and Iran support the regime with weapons.

Earlier this week, Britain announced it would provide armored vehicles and other equipment to the rebels, while stopping short of arming them. The West has balked at sending weapons, fearing they could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks.

In India, Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Britain's decision will only prolong the fighting. She alleged that most of the rebels are linked to the al-Qaida terror network and conservative Islamic groups.

"Britain should not think that terror activities by such groups in Syria, will not one day go back to haunt Europe or Britain," said Shaaban, who is in India for talks with Indian leaders to rally support for Assad.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said it had made arrangements with all parties for the release of 21 U.N. peacekeepers, all Filipinos, who were seized by Syrian rebels on Wednesday. The captives were taken to the village of Jamlah, one kilometer (less than a mile) from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where a U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.

The parties involved in the arrangements would presumably include both the rebels holding the peacekeepers and government forces reported to be shelling the area.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a media person with the group holding the peacekeepers said the rebels would release them if there is a cease-fire between 10 am and noon on Saturday.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of contacts in Syria, said it was expected that teams from the Red Cross and the U.N. would reach the area Saturday morning.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Peacekeeping Department, said late Friday that a trip to the village where the peacekeepers are being held was aborted Friday because it was considered unsafe.

She said efforts would continue Saturday for their release.

On Friday, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters in New York that a possible cease-fire could facilitate the peacekeepers' release.

He said they appear to be safe, but the village was subjected to "intense" shelling by the Syrian armed forces.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned rebel forces anew for holding the U.N. peacekeepers, but shared the blame with the Assad regime.

"We have the regime shelling this rebel-held position, further endangering the peacekeepers and making it impossible for U.N. negotiators to get in there and try to resolve" the situation, she told reporters.

Still, Nuland said the rebels should free the peacekeepers anyhow and without conditions and that holding them was tarnishing the rebel cause.

The rebels had previously demanded that regime forces withdraw from the area. However, a local activist said Friday via Skype that they could be retrieved by an official U.N. delegation.

The activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the rebels felt the peacekeepers were not doing their job in the area since government forces were still shelling and carrying out airstrikes.