BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a newspaper interview Saturday he won't step down and will instead "face the storm," raising new doubts about a U.S-Russian effort to get Assad and his opponents to negotiate an end to the country's civil war.
In the Syrian capital Damascus, meanwhile, a powerful explosion went off in the Ruken al-Deen neighborhood, killing three people and wounding five, Syrian state TV reported. It said the blast was caused by a car bomb and that experts are dismantling other explosives in the area.
On the diplomatic front, Syria's political opposition has said any transition talks must lead to Assad's ouster. However, the Syrian leader told the Argentine newspaper Clarin in comments published Saturday that he won't leave before elections are held in his country, and suggested he might seek another term.
Assad's comments were the first about his political future since the U.S. and Russia agreed earlier this month to try to bring the Syrian regime and the opposition to an international conference for talks aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Such a gathering is envisioned for next month, but no date has been set, and neither the Assad regime nor the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed coalition group, has made a firm commitment to attend.
The Syrian president's remarks highlighted the difficulties the U.S. and Russia face in getting the two sides to agree on the terms of negotiations.
More than 70,000 people have been killed and several million displaced since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war.
Assad has dismissed those trying to topple him as foreign-backed terrorists. Many in the political opposition say the Syrian president and his inner circle cannot be expected to negotiate in good faith after they brutally suppressed peaceful protests.
In his comments Saturday, Assad appeared to play down the importance of any international conference, saying Syria's future will be determined by its people and dismissing any possible role the U.S. and others might play.
"We have said from the very beginning that any decision about reforms in Syria or any other political action are local decisions and it is not permissible that the U.S. or any other state interfere in them," he said.
Assad compared himself to the skipper of a ship riding Syria's turbulent seas, saying "the country is in a crisis and when a ship faces a storm, the captain does not flee."
"The first thing he does is face the storm and guide the ship back to safety," Assad was quoted as saying by the newspaper. "I am not someone who flees from my responsibilities."
An audio clip from the interview was posted on the Clarin website, with his Arabic comments dubbed into Spanish and translated into English by The Associated Press.