AMMAN, Jordan — More than 200 Syrian soldiers and opposition fighters died in the eight-day battle for a police academy near the embattled northern city of Aleppo, activists said Sunday, as President Bashar al-Assad lashed out at the West for sending aid to those trying to oust him.
The Britain-based anti-regime group The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels seized control of the police academy in Khan al-Asal, west of Aleppo, after entering the sprawling government complex with tanks they captured from Assad's troops in previous battles.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory's director, said at least 120 soldiers from Assad's forces and at least 80 rebels were killed in the fighting outside Aleppo, Syria's largest city. He said the rebels now control all buildings inside the complex, which was abandoned by Assad's forces early Sunday.
Also on Sunday, the rebels stormed a central prison in the northern city of Raqqa and captured a border crossing in the east along Syria's border with Iraq.
The rebels' territorial gains are a significant blow to Assad, although his forces have regained control of several villages and towns along a key highway near Aleppo International Airport — an achievement that could signal the start of a decisive battle for Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, where government troops and the rebels have been locked in a stalemate for months.
Opposition forces already control large swathes of land in northeastern Syria, including whole neighborhoods in Aleppo, and key infrastructure such as dams on the Euphrates River and an oil field in the east. They've also been pushing their way into Damascus, the heavily fortified seat of Assad's power.
The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule and then turned into a full-blown civil war after the opposition took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations says than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Assad maintains his troops are fighting terrorist and Islamic extremists seeking to destroy Syria and accuses the West and its Gulf Arab allies of supporting them in achieving their goal.
In a newspaper interview published on Sunday, Assad criticized the U.S. and Britain for sending financial and other non-lethal aid to the opposition. He set harsh terms for talking to his opponents, dialing back earlier hints of flexibility about talks.
He said he is ready for dialogue with armed rebels and militants, but only if they surrendered their weapons. Recently, the Syrian government offered to participate in talks, but didn't address the question of laying down arms.
"We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms. We are not going to deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons to terrorize people, to kill civilians, to attack public places or private enterprise and to destroy the country," Assad told the London's Sunday Times during an interview in Damascus. "We fight terrorism."
Assad's regime refers to rebels as "terrorists."
The opposition, including fighters on the ground and the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition umbrella group, has rejected talks with Damascus until Assad steps down, a demand he has repeatedly rejected.
The interview coincided with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's first foreign tour that includes stops in the Middle East and Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, which have backed the rebels in Syrian conflict.
Kerry met with Syrian rebel leaders on Thursday in Italy where he announced that the U.S. will for the first time provide medical aid and other non-lethal assistance directly to the fighters in addition to $60 million in assistance to Syria's political opposition.
Assad said the "intelligence, communication and financial assistance being provided is very lethal."
He bitterly criticized Britain, saying Prime Minister David Cameron's push for peace talks is "naive, confused, unrealistic" while his government was trying to end the European Union's arms embargo so that the rebels can be supplied with weapons.
"We do not expect an arsonist to be a firefighter," he said, dismissing any notion that Britain could help end the civil war. "How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem?"
Britain's aim to send aid to moderate opposition groups was misguided, Assad said, saying that such groups do not exist in Syria. Arming the rebels would have grave consequences, he warned.
"We all know that we are now fighting al-Qaida, or Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaida, and other groups of people indoctrinated with extreme ideologies," he told the newspaper.
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