DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: President Bashar Assad vowed Monday not to bow to mounting pressure and “plots” after nearly two years of revolt against his rule, as at least 10 people were killed when a car exploded just inside the Turkish border.
On the war front, rebels seized control of Syria’s largest dam, an activist group said, gaining control of water and electricity supplies for both government-held areas and large swathes of rebel-captured territory.
In comments quoted by the state news agency, SANA, Assad said Syria “will remain the beating heart of the Arab world and will not give up its principles despite the intensifying pressure and diversifying plots not only targeting Syria, but all Arabs.”
His remarks followed the passing of a Sunday deadline set by National Coalition opposition chief, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, to release all female political prisoners from Syrian prisons, on which Khatib’s controversial offer of dialogue was dependent.
Khatib said in late January he was prepared to hold direct talks with regime representatives without “blood on their hands,” so long as the discussions focus on replacing Assad.
The Assad regime has said it is open to talks without conditions attached.
Khatib said Monday he had received “no clear response” from Damascus over the offer. Pressed to say whether his offer was still open despite the deadline passing, he told reporters in Cairo: “We are still waiting for the government response and then we are going to study that.” Also in Cairo, Assad’s former Prime Minister Riad Hijab met the Egyptian foreign minister. Egyptian news agency MENA quoted Hijab, Damascus’ most senior government defector, as saying: “There is no solution to the Syrian crisis except by the departure of Bashar Assad.”
Hijab said the coalition was seeking Syria’s national seat at the Arab League.
With efforts to reach a political solution flailing, violence is intensifying.
Just across the border from northern Syria, at least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded when a car exploded just inside Turkey, Turkish officials said, although the cause was not immediately clear.
Turkey’s deputy prime minister said 12 people were killed – nine Syrians and three Turks. He said 28 people were wounded, nine of them Turkish. The vehicle that exploded had a Syrian license plate, he added.
“We have unfortunately lost 13 people: three of them Turks and the rest Syrians,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Turkey’s NTV said most of the victims were Syrians who had been waiting to enter Turkey. It cited Huseyin Sanverdi, mayor of the nearby Turkish town of Reyhanli, as saying the explosion occurred in a “buffer zone,” an area straddling the frontier where travelers are processed while crossing between the two countries.
Another Turkish Foreign Ministry official said a suicide bomber might have been involved in the blast that smashed apart the gates at the crossing, opposite Syria’s Bab al-Hawa post.
Monday’s blast came less than three weeks after NATO declared that a battery of U.S.-made Patriot missiles had become operational on Turkey’s Syrian border.
Turkey, a one-time Syria ally now vehemently opposed to Assad’s regime, has taken in nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees and is a transit point for rebel fighters.
Inside Syria, rebels seized control of the country’s largest dam, a vital barrier along the Euphrates River in the northern province of Raqqa that generates 880 megawatts of power, the opposition activist organization the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
“This is the biggest economic loss for the regime since the start of the revolution,” which the United Nations says has cost more than 60,000 lives since it broke out in mid-March, 2011, Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
Rebels from the Islamist militias the Nusra Front and the Awayis al-Qurani and Ahrar al-Tabqa battalions met little resistance in the area, as loyalist security chiefs fled onboard military helicopters, he said.
Earlier this month, the Observatory said rebels seized another smaller dam in Raqqa province, the Baath dam, named after Syria’s ruling party. In November, Syrian opposition fighters captured the Tishrin hydroelectric dam.
The rebels have had their biggest success in the civil war across Syria’s north, including Idlib, Raqqa and Aleppo provinces – all of which border Turkey, but have struggled to gain a foothold in the capital.
Warplanes bombarded two districts of southern Damascus, Assali and Qadam, said the Observatory, while rebel fighters seized control of a bridge linking insurgent-held suburb Irbin to Jobar district in the east of the capital.
Assad’s forces brought up tanks to defend Jobar, a district adjacent to the landmark Abbasid Square, which has seen heavy fighting in recent days. However, activists said Assad’s forces remained well dug in the city center.
The Observatory said at least 66 people, including 27 civilians, were killed in violence across Syria Monday.