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Assad in Syria mercenaries claim

In his first interview in nearly half a year, Syrian president Bashar Assad claimed his regime has captured foreign mercenaries who were fighting for the opposition in a bid to show his forces are fighting terrorists rather than pro-democracy activists.

Assad spoke in an interview broadcast on Russian state news channel Rossiya-24, signalling he has no intention of softening his position despite an international peace plan that includes a ceasefire.

He said the decision by the Syrian National Council to boycott parliamentary elections earlier this year discredited the opposition group.

"To call for boycotting the elections, that's the equivalent of calling for a boycott of the people," Assad said. "And how can you boycott the people of whom you consider yourself the representative?

"So I don't think that they have any kind of weight or significance within Syria," Assad said in remarks translated into Russian.

He said religious extremists and al Qaida members from abroad are among the forces fighting his government.

"There are foreign mercenaries, some of them still alive. They are being detained and we are preparing to show them to the world," he said.

Assad's last interview was with ABC's Barbara Walters in December.

It was significant that the latest interview was given to Russia state media. Russia has been Syria's most powerful and loyal ally over the course of the uprising, selling weapons to the regime and blocking action against Damascus at the UN Security Council.

The Assad regime's crackdown on a 14-month-long popular uprising has left thousands dead and prompted international condemnation. More than 200 UN observers have been deployed throughout Syria to monitor a ceasefire agreement, which has been repeatedly violated by both sides since it took effect on April 12.

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