Syrian troops attack northern town
Syrian troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun today, activists said, as president Bashar al-Assad said he would have been toppled like the shah of Iran if his people had not been behind him.
Activists said Syrian forces pursuing their latest offensive had killed at least 11 people as they entered Khan Sheikhoun in an armoured assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment.
"They are burning houses and farms," local activist Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani said, adding that 80 percent of residents had fled.
Dr Assad blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab countries and an alleged Western plot to break up Syria or plunge it into civil war.
"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," he told Turkey's Cumhuriyet daily.
"The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this."
He noted that Western backing and a strong army had not prevented Iran's shah being toppled in a revolution in 1979.
"Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated," he said.
"If I didn't have the people behind me ... I would have been overthrown. How come I'm still standing?"
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to fund Syrian rebels and have long advocated arming them, despite Western misgivings about the wisdom of further militarising the conflict.
Russia, which condemns outside backing for Syrian insurgents whom it regards as dangerous Islamist militants, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Dr Assad political asylum.
Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumours as "an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position".
Moscow has backed a vaguely-worded proposal for a political transition in Syria, but denies this implies removing Dr Assad.
Along with China, it has blocked any UN security council action on Syria, anxious to give no pretext for a Libya-style military intervention - which the West denies contemplating.
The world backed a peace plan brokered in April by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but it never took effect.
The head of a UN mission sent to monitor Mr Annan's ceasefire said the observers must stay in Syria even though there was no truce and violence was reaching an "unprecedented level".
General Robert Mood said the 300-strong mission should be restructured to help support the political dialogue that foreign powers say is the only way out of the crisis.
Dr Assad's forces have killed over 15,000 people in 16 months of violence, Syrian dissidents and Western leaders say. Damascus says rebels have killed many soldiers and security men.
Syrian forces also shelled the shattered city of Homs and Harasta, a town near Damascus, activists said.
Human rights monitor Rami Abdelrahman said 97 Syrians had been killed yesterday, a now common scale of death in a conflict disastrous for Syria and worrying for its neighbours.