Iraq bars Syria-bound plane with suspected arms

By Bassem Mroue

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2012 12:20 p.m. MDT

Syria's ties with the Gulf nations have been strained in the past — Assad once called Saudi King Abdullah and other Arab leaders "half men" for being critical of Hezbollah over the 34-day war between the Lebanese Shiite militant group and Israel in 2006.

After Assad's remarks were published, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoebi told state-run TV that the president had received nine Egyptian journalists and had a chat with them about the latest developments.

The minister said none of the journalists took notes as the meeting was considered a "personal visit," but a reporter for Al-Ahram Al-Arabi published some of what was said.

In the meeting with the Egyptian journalists, Assad was also quoted as saying that the only way to solve the Syrian crisis is through "dialogue with the opposition" and that the "door for dialogue is open."

Most Syrian opposition groups reject any talks with the regime, saying they will not accept anything less than Assad's departure from power and the dissolving of his regime's security agencies.

One of the opposition groups, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, on Friday accused the regime of being behind the disappearance of two of its leaders.

Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir and Ayas Ayyash were expected to take part in a conference Sunday in Damascus by some 20 Syrian groups that are calling for Assad to step down. But they disappeared Thursday along with a friend who had picked them up at Damascus International Airport, the group said.

The group's head, Hassan Abdul-Azim, said the regime was believed to be behind the disappearance. Openly disparaging the regime has always been taboo and fraught with danger in Syria, although some have grown emboldened because of the uprising.

Abdul-Azim said the opposition wants a "new regime that represents the will of the people." He said his group will go ahead with the conference. The gathering will invite European ambassadors and envoys from China and Russia.

Also Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly 30,000 Syrians have been killed during the conflict.

The Observatory's count includes 20,935 civilians; 1,153 army defectors fighting alongside the rebels; and 7,141 Syrian troops fighting for the Assad regime — which gives a total of 29,229, said the head of the group, Rami Abdul-Rahman.

The list is compiled from reports by witnesses and medical staff, he said, adding that he only includes those identified by name or whose death was authenticated by amateur video. The Syrian military rarely releases figures on troops killed.

Another Syrian opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the overall death toll at 26,405. However, its count does not include Syrian troops killed in battle. The LCC relies on a network of activists in Syria to collect its information.

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Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Beirut and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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