UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Syria's foreign minister claimed Monday that his government is fighting a war against al-Qaida-linked militants who eat human hearts and dismember people while they are still alive, then send their limbs to family members.
Walid al-Moallem, addressing world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, also charged that the U.S., Britain and France had blocked the naming of the real perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which he blamed on the opposition.
President Barack Obama told the same forum last week that it was the President Bashar Assad's regime that was behind a chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs and brought threats of a retaliatory U.S. strike.
After the U.S. threatened to attack Syria, the Assad regime committed to getting rid of its stockpiles of chemical weapons. The U.N. Security Council then voted unanimously on Friday to oblige it to do so based on a plan made by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The resolution broke 2-1/2 years of paralysis on the Syria conflict in the Security Council.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky was asked after the speech why the U.N. was not assigning blame for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He said that U.N. guidelines mandate that U.N. inspection teams determine whether chemical weapons were used, but not who used them.
Syria's main opposition group in exile called al-Moallem's speech "an attempt to hide from the world a totalitarian regime's systematic and indiscriminate attacks against its own people." The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) said the minister "denied the Assad regime's fundamental responsibility for creating and perpetuating this conflict."
Syria's civil war, raging for 2-1/2 years, had killed more than 100,000 people.
"The Syrian regime has abandoned all responsibility to protect its people," the SNC claimed.
Al-Moallem claimed "terrorists" fighting the regime are being supplied with chemical weapons, but he did not name specific nations accused of supplying them. The Syrian regime has long referred to the entire opposition rising up against Assad as "terrorists."
Al-Moallem claimed that it was clear to all that offshoots of al-Qaida – "the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world" – is fighting in the civil war. But some countries refuse to recognize it, he charged.
"The scenes of murder, manslaughter and eating human hearts were shown on TV screens, but did not touch blind consciences," al-Moallem said.
"There are innocent civilians whose heads are put on the grill just because they violate the extremist ideology and deviant views of al-Qaida. 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."
A video published online in May purported to show a member of Syria's armed opposition eating a human heart while the body of a Syrian soldier lay close by. The video drew condemnation from human rights groups as well as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), one of the main opposition groups.
Another video the minister referred to purportedly showed rebels grilling the head of a Syrian soldier.
As rebels gain more territory and a multitude of militias, jihadists and criminals join the fight against Assad, reports of serious human rights abuses committed by armed opposition elements are on the rise.
Summary executions committed by rebel forces – albeit on a far smaller scale than the regime's alleged atrocities – have put the West in a difficult position as it seeks to arm, train and otherwise aid the rebels.
Al-Moallem said his government was committed to a political solution to the conflict, which he called a war against "terror" and not a civil war as the international community has been referring to it for months. He added that "terrorists" from 83 countries are operating in Syria.
Al-Moallem also accused armed Islamist groups of using "perverted concepts of religion that have nothing to do with Islam." He condemned what he called the Islamists' "perverted fatwas such as sexual jihad."
Rumors have long circulated about women, mostly foreign, engaging in sexual relations with jihadist militants fighting among the rebels as a way of supporting them. Syrian state media have shown women purportedly "confessing" to such activity with foreign fighters, however the claims could not be independently verified.
The SNC said al-Moallem attempted to characterize anyone opposing his regime as an extremist terrorist by sensationalizing a few stories that the opposition has roundly condemned.
"The truth, which has been documented extensively by experts and institutions as well as journalists and social media, is that the Syrian people are a moderate, accepting population, and they are seeking a democratic future in which all have equal rights," the SNC said.
"The extremists and terrorists do not represent the opposition. ... These extremists have infiltrated the country, and they only serve to wreak havoc on the population and fulfill the regime's narrative of sectarianism," the SNC added. "The world will not be deceived by the regime's misleading rhetoric."
Associated Press writers Peter Spielmann at the United Nations and Zeina Karam in Beirut, Syria contributed to this report.
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