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Syria's Assad criticises U.S. threat of strikes: China TV

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, in this handout photograph dis
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with China's state television CCTV, in Damascus, in this handout photograph dis

By Sui-Lee Wee

BEIJING (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad criticised the United States for threatening to attack Syria over its chemical weapons program, saying it was finding "excuses for war", China's state television said on Monday.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he is prepared to attack Syria, even without a U.N. mandate, if Assad reneges on a U.S.-Russian deal to put Syria's chemical arms stockpiles under international control.

Russia and the United States brokered the deal to avert U.S. military strikes that Washington said would punish Assad for a poison gas attack last month.

"If the U.S. wants to find excuses for war, it will find them as it has never stopped war," Assad said in an interview with China's state television, CCTV, in the Syrian capital.

"With or without the Syrian crisis, we will always be on alert against some Western countries' intention to override the U.N. Charter and the international laws," he added, according to a transcript of his translated remarks from CCTV.

Russia and China have both vetoed Western efforts to impose U.N. penalties on Assad. But China has also been keen to show it is not taking sides and has urged the Syrian government to talk to the opposition and take steps to meet demands for political change. It has said a transitional government should be formed.

Assad said China and Russia would ensure there could be no pretext for military action against Syria, and CCTV's website quoted him as saying Syria would honor "everything that we have agreed to do".

"And more importantly, I want to say, by submitting the draft to the U.N. Security Council, or by urging the U.S. and Russia to agree on a deal, the U.S., France, and Britain are just trying to make themselves winners in a war against a Syria which is their imaginary enemy."

The United States has blamed Assad's forces for the August 21 chemical attack, which it said killed more than 1,400 people.

Assad blamed rebels battling to overthrow him, saying it made no sense for his forces to use chemical weapons when they were gaining the upper hand and while U.N. chemical inspectors were staying in central Damascus.

"We also have confessions made by the terrorists who transported the materials from the neighboring countries," he said in the interview.

"OBEYING ORDERS"

Envoys from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - met last week to discuss a draft resolution Western powers hope will make Syria's chemical disarmament deal legally binding.

Russia, a key ally of Assad, is unhappy with the draft's references to possible punitive measures against Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which can authorize sanctions and military force.

Assad said gunmen could hinder the access of inspectors to sites where the weapons were stored and made.

"We know that these terrorists are obeying the orders of other countries and these countries do drive these terrorists to commit acts that could get the Syrian government blamed for hindering this agreement," he said.

Asked whether Syria had a lot of chemical weapons, Assad said: "Syria has been manufacturing chemical weapons for decades so it's normal for there to be large quantities in the country."

But he said Syria stopped production at least 15 years ago.

"In the 1980s, when we started production (of chemical weapons) there was a gulf in terms of conventional weapons between Syria and Israel, the enemy occupying our territory," he said in extracts broadcast on Syrian television.

"In the second half of the 1990s, Syria stopped producing these weapons...because the gap had been partially bridged," he added. "The justification in the 1980s for weapons of mass destruction in Syria was no longer there."

He made no mention of Israel's 2007 bombing of a site in eastern Syria which U.S. intelligence reports described as a nascent reactor designed to produce plutonium for atomic bombs. Syria has denied it had a clandestine nuclear program.

Assad said the country's chemical weapons were stored "under special conditions" to prevent anyone tampering with them.

"So there is nothing to worry about. The chemical weapons in Syria are in a safe place that is secure and under the control of the Syrian army."

Separately, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that China was willing to send experts to help in the Syrian chemical weapons destruction process, and reiterated that a political solution was the only way to solve the crisis in Syria.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Saturday Syria had handed over information about its chemical weapons arsenal, meeting the first deadline of the disarmament operation.

(Additional reporting by Miral Fahmy in Singapore and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alistair Lyon)

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