(CNN) — The Syrian president says his country’s opposition movement has failed to duplicate the kinds of mass protests that unfolded in other Arab nations.
“They wanted to bring people out into the streets in large numbers just like in Egypt and Tunisia,” President Bashar al-Assad said in the latest installment of an interview published Thursday in the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet. “However they were not successful.”
Al-Assad said people were paid an initial equivalent of $10 to participate in the protests, with the amount going up to $50.
He said the protests started peacefully, but opposition forces “wanted to form liberated areas by arming certain regions, like the Benghazi model” in Libya. The city of Benghazi in eastern Libya was the base for rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
“Our army did not allow this,” al-Assad said. “Now they are at a new stage: Assassinations, bombing state institutions, massacres targeting civilians and kidnappings have begun.”
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Last year’s mass protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the ousting of the leaders there. He said the aim of his foes “is to divide Syria or to create internal war.” As a result, “the struggle against terrorism will continue.”
Al-Assad, who blames “terrorists” for the violence, said countries such as the United States and Turkey are helping the opposition.
“The arms that are coming from the other side have to be stopped immediately. Of course also the logistical support. The support that the international powers especially, starting with the United States, to the terrorists has to stop.”
He cites the Turkish government’s “animosity.” Syria and Turkey have been at odds over al-Assad’s crackdown.
“They are setting up camps on the border and taking people from here to there,” al-Assad said. “The government is trying to use the existing crisis for its own interests.”
Tensions have spiked since Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish military jet last month, which al-Assad said he regretted, adding that soldiers thought the plane was from Israel. The bodies of the jet’s two pilots were recovered Thursday in Syrian territorial waters, the Turkish military said.
Turkish authorities said the plane was shot down June 22 just one nautical mile outside of Syrian airspace and it crashed inside of the airspace. The bodies have been taken to Malatya, the site of the base in Turkey where the jet took off. Funeral details have not yet been announced.
The search for the pilots and the wreckage had been conducted inside Syrian territorial waters from the start, the Turkish military said.
Also, Turkish truck drivers were caught in the crossfire of a battle in Syria near Aleppo, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
Turkey is trying to determine whether Syrian troops deliberately targeted them in the incident, which occurred Wednesday. Drivers left their trucks and escaped to safety, ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told CNN.
YouTube videos have emerged of what appear to be burned-out Turkish trucks.
The uprising in Syria began last year when the government cracked down on peaceful protests. The regime’s show of force provoked a nationwide revolt with a growing rebel movement.
Videos pouring out of the country have shown thousands of anti-government forces taking to the streets during the uprising.
One opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Wednesday that more than 16,700 have been killed in nearly 16 months of unrest. More than 11,000 of them were civilians.
At least 31 people died Thursday across the country, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.
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CNN cannot independently confirm the reports of casualties or violence because Syria restricts access by international journalists.
Regime security forces have been roundly deplored across the globe for their brutality, with human rights groups and the United Nations documenting widespread abuses against civilians.
Al-Assad was asked about U.N. Human Rights Council accusations of crimes against humanity by members of his units.
“As you know, the majority of these institutions are under the influence of the American and (W)estern administrations,” al-Assad said in the interview. “These reports are written as a result of international power balance. The aim is to increase pressure. They can say whatever they want. We are right and we will not submit.”
Pressed on whether his units committed abuses, he said, “Well of course mistakes are always made,” but added the government should not be blamed.
“Crimes are committed. If one group commits a crime, will the state be responsible for that?” he said. “These things happen everywhere in the world. Individual institutional crime is one thing; to blame the entire state is another thing.”
World powers, working with U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, have been trying to foster a transition plan led by Syrians that would lead to peace. And Friends of Syria, a Western- and Arab-backed group that meets Friday in Paris, is looking for ways to bring about change.
Al-Assad was asked if he would be elected if polls were held tomorrow.
“I cannot answer on behalf of my people. And I have not conducted a public poll. And what I do I’m not doing so that they elect me. What I do I’m doing because I believe in it.”
He said he believes the “overwhelming majority” like him.
Earlier this year, Annan forged a six-point peace plan to end the conflict, which included a call for a cease-fire. The U.N. Security Council decided to form an observer mission to monitor a cessation of violence by the government and other combatants.
The mission had to be suspended last month as dangers increased after fighting intensified. Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, told reporters in Damascus on Thursday that it is restructuring and consolidating aspects of its operation if and when it resumes its activities.
Observers are concerned about another facet to the violence in Syria: the emergence of jihadists.
The Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, a group analysts have identified as a jihadist movement, has taken responsibility for attacks in the capital of Damascus and other locations.
It claimed responsibility on its website for a strike on a pro-government TV station outside of Damascus last month that left seven people dead.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN that “extremist groups have an important role in the level of violence that is going on.”
For years, militants have been crossing into Iraq from Syria. Now, there’s “solid information and intelligence” they’re heading into Syria, Zebari said.
CNN’s Ivan Watson, Yesim Comert and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.
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Article source: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/05/world/meast/syria-unrest/index.html?eref=edition
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