Syrian troops repulse rebel attack in Aleppo

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria‘s state media said Monday that government troops repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo, one day after President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to fight an opposition driven by what he characterized as religious extremists.

The official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a “terrorist group” in the fighting late Sunday, but it did provide a number. The government and the pro-regime media refer to the rebels seeking to topple Mr. Assad as terrorists.

Aleppo, Syria‘s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles often raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school. Rebels recently have made gains around Aleppo, as well as in the east and in the capital, Damascus, bringing the civil war closer to the seat of Mr. Assad’s power.

In his speech Sunday, Mr. Assad sketched out terms for a peace plan but dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition, labeling them “murderous criminals” who he said were responsible for nearly two years of violence. Nearly 60,000 people have died, according to a recent U.N. estimate.

Mr. Assad appeared confident and relaxed in the one-hour address — his first public speech in six months. He struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue — but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.” He also vowed to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left.”

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.

Syria‘s opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, repeatedly have said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

The West, including the U.S. and Britain, denounced the speech, which came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict.

The foreign minister of Iran, one of Syria‘s closest allies, hailed Mr. Assad’s initiative. Ali Akbar Salehi, the minister, said it contains “solutions” to the conflict and outlines “a comprehensive political process which guarantees the presence of all voices in power.” Mr. Salehi called on the international community to support Mr. Assad’s initiative.

“All regional and international partners should help the immediate resolution of the crisis and prevent its spread to the region,” Mr. Salehi said in a statement that was carried by the state-run IRNA news agency Monday.

Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the bloodshed.

The violence often has spilled over into Syria‘s neighboring countries, including Turkey.

The Dutch military on Monday shipped Patriot missiles to Turkey, a fellow NATO member, after the alliance agreed in December to deploy the anti-missile systems along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

Once a close ally of Damascus, Ankara has turned into one of the Syrian regime’s harshest critics since Mr. Assad launched a crackdown on dissent. Turkey requested the missiles to boost its air defenses against possible spillover from Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Mr. Assad’s initiative and again called on the Syrian leader to relinquish power.

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