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Iran denies it has forces fighting in Syria

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. Jordan is hosting 10 other nations Wednesday for a "Friends of Syria" conference in Amman. (AP Photo/Jim Young, Pool)

BEIRUT/DUBAI: Iran denied Friday it had forces in Syria supporting President Bashar Assad’s army, one day after foreign backers of his rebel foes demanded Tehran withdraw its fighters from Syrian territory.

“The true enemies of Syria make up these accusations to provoke the people of this country,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said, quoted by Iranian state television.

At a meeting in Jordan Thursday, the “Friends of Syria” grouping of Western and Arab governments called for the immediate withdrawal from Syria of Iranian fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

They were reported to be fighting alongside the Syrian army and militias loyal to Assad in the town of Qusair, near the Lebanese border.

“In response to a question about accusations that Iranian and Hezbollah forces were present in Syria, Abbas Araqchi said Iranian forces have never been and are not present in Syria,” the state television report said.

Iran, a Shiite nation, is Assad’s closest ally and has provided money, weapons, intelligence and training for his forces against a mainly Sunni uprising in which more than 80,000 people have been killed in two years.

Iran has called for elections and reforms in Syria but does not accept Assad’s removal, saying a solution to the crisis cannot be imposed from outside. Tehran has also accused Western and Arab nations of arming the opposition groups.

Analysts say that losing its Syrian ally would weaken Iran’s ability to threaten Israel through Hezbollah.

Intense fighting continued Friday in Qusair, a strategic town located close to the Lebanese border, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Government forces have been trying to recapture the town since Sunday. State-run news agency SANA said troops killed a “large number” of rebels in the latest clashes.

The United States, Turkey and Qatar called Friday for an urgent debate on Syria at the U.N.’s top human rights body next week, citing the escalating conflict and the regime’s assault on the central town of Qusair.

“We have the honor to request the Human Rights Council to hold an urgent debate on the deteriorating situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic, and the recent killings in Qusair,” the ambassadors of the three countries wrote in their request to council President Remigiusz Henczel.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is set to open its next three-week session Monday, and the three countries requested in their letter that the urgent debate be held during the first week, lamenting “the escalating grave human rights violations” in Syria.

Council spokesman Rolando Gomez told AFP that Henczel and other administrators would now look into when it would be possible to hold the debate, adding that Tuesday or Wednesday looked likely.

This would not be the first time the U.N.’s top rights body met to discuss the spiraling violence in Syria.

The council has previously held one urgent debate on Syria and four special sessions outside its usual meetings and is already set to hear during the coming session a report from U.N. investigators into the human rights situation in the war-torn country.

The heavy fighting in Qusair is only the latest chapter in the more than two-year conflict, which has forced over 1.5 million Syrians to flee to neighboring countries.

Also Friday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition again accused the regime of using chemical weapons against civilians, this time in an overnight poison gas attack against Adra, on the outskirts of Damascus.

“The attack killed four people and affected 50 others, some with suffocation and others with fatigue accompanied by a severe allergic reaction,” the SNC said in a statement.

“Syrian lives are in grave danger, as the international community remains silent in the face of the latest chemical attack on a highly populated area near Damascus.”

The regime has denied using chemical weapons, but the U.S., and others, believe it is increasingly likely it has done so.

Also Friday, Syria’s state media said rebels fired mortar bombs at the central prison in Aleppo, killing and wounding several inmates.

The pro-opposition Aleppo Media Center said clashes were underway between rebels and government troops at the prison in the northern city. The center said a large fire had broken out at the facility.

Friday’s fighting comes a week after Assad’s forces repelled a rebel raid on the prison that sought to free hundreds of political prisoners.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2013, on page 10.

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