By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Syria's foreign minister on Monday compared what he described as an invasion of foreign terrorists across his country to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, remarks that Washington dismissed as offensive and disingenuous.
In a speech to the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also said that "terrorists from more than 83 countries are engaged in the killing of our people and our army under the appeal of global Takfiri jihad."
"There is no civil war in Syria, but it is a war against terror that recognizes no values, nor justice, nor equality, and disregards any rights or laws," Moualem said.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's 2-1/2 year conflict. It began in March 2011 when the government tried to crush pro-democracy protests and eventually became a full-scale war. Now more than half of Syria's 20 million people need aid.
"The people of New York have witnessed the devastations of terrorism, and were burned with the fire of extremism and bloodshed, the same way we are suffering now in Syria," Moualem said, referring to the September 11 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.
"How can some countries, hit by the same terrorism we are suffering now in Syria, claim to fight terrorism in all parts of the world, while supporting it in my country?" he said.
The U.S. mission to the United Nations responded angrily, saying Moualem's comment was "as disingenuous as it is offensive," adding that his statements "have no credibility."
"The fact that the Syrian regime has shelled schools and hospitals and used chemical weapons on its own people demonstrates that it has adopted the very terrorist tactics that it today decried," said Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission.
Assad's government accuses Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain, France and the United States of arming, financing and training rebel forces in Syria.
JIHADISTS IN SYRIA
Moualem dismissed the idea that there are moderate rebels in Syria, which Western nations say are the ones they intend to support.
"The claims about the existence of moderate militants and extremist militants have become a bad joke," he told the 193-nation assembly. "Terrorism means only terrorism. It cannot be classified as moderate terrorism and extremist terrorism."
Moualem also referred to video footage on the Internet earlier this year of one rebel fighter eating what appeared to be the heart of a government soldier.
"The scenes of murder, manslaughter and eating human hearts were shown on TV screens, but did not touch blind consciences," he said. "There are innocent civilians whose heads are put on the grill just because they violate the extremist ideology and deviant views of al Qaeda.
"In Syria ... there are murderers who dismember human bodies into pieces while still alive and send their limbs to their families, just because those citizens are defending a unified and secular Syria," Moualem said.
Earlier this month U.N. human rights investigators said hard-line Syrian rebels and foreign fighters invoking jihad, or holy war, have stepped up killings, executions and other abuses in northern Syria since July.
Last week the U.N. Security Council achieved a rare moment of unity on the Syrian war by passing a resolution demanding the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014. Assad's ally Russia supported the resolution, which was based on a U.S.-Russian plan agreed upon in Geneva.
Moualem said the Syrian government is committed to fulfilling its obligations after having acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans the use of such weapons. But he repeated the government's position that it is the rebels who have been using poison gas, not forces loyal to Assad.
"Terrorists, who used poisonous gases in my country, have received chemical agents from regional and Western countries that are well known to all of us," he said.
The United Nations has received reports of at least 14 chemical attacks in Syria. The most recent was an August 21 sarin gas attack that the United States says killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.
Assad's government and the rebels blame each other for the August 21 attack, which took place in a Damascus suburb. U.N. investigators did not assign blame but Western governments say a recent U.N. report on that incident suggests government-allied forces were responsible.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Claudia Parsons)