Russia says Assad 'not bluffing' about staying put

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 efforts to free 21 U.N. peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels dragged into a third day.

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 Philippine government continued to push 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.

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.

There was little apparent progress on securing their release late Friday, and it was unclear what the rebel demands were for their release.

The rebels had previously demanded that regime forces withdraw from the area. However, an activist who said he is the media coordinator for the rebel group holding the peacekeepers said Friday via Skype that it was too dangerous to release them, but 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.

"They are guests under the protection of the (rebels) even though their presence in the area was negative and they didn't accomplish what they were here to do, but as soon as someone from the U.N. comes to get them officially, this will be over," he said.

Last week, rebels from the Martyrs of Yarmouk Brigades, the group holding the peacekeepers, overran several Syrian army checkpoints in the area, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Friday, rebels attacked regime forces in the village of Abdeen south of Jamlah, setting off heavy clashes, the Observatory said. Regime helicopters bombed the area, the group said.

Rebels apparently fear that the regime will retake the area if the peacekeepers are released, raising the possibility of a prolonged standoff.

A contingent of more than 300 Filipino peacekeepers is part of the U.N. force, known as UNDOF.

Since the conflict began, nearly 4 million of Syria's 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting, according to U.N. estimates. This includes refugees in neighboring countries and some 2 million who have sought shelter inside Syria.

In one recent wave, more than 20,000 families fled fighting in the northeastern Raqqa province, seeking refuge in the neighboring district of Deir el-Zour, according to the World Food Program.

The U.N. agency said that in recent days it distributed food to some 20,000 people in public shelters in Deir el-Zour. More food trucks are to deliver food there Friday.

In addition to the internally displaced, Syrians who remain in their homes are also in increasing need of food aid, the agency said. The Syrian economy has been hit hard by the 2-year-old conflict, and basics such as food and fuel are becoming scarce in many areas.

"The needs are huge and are growing," said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the WFP. "It's kind of a vicious cycle, the collapse of the economy, and more and more people are displaced."

She said the U.N. agency distributed food to 1.7 million Syrians in February, with the help of local partners. The agency plans to reach 2 million in March and 2.5 million in April, she said.


Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Beirut and Oliver Teves in Manila contributed reporting.

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