SYRIAN President Bashar al-Assad said yesterday he would have been toppled like the Shah of Iran if his people had not been behind him, as troops pushed into the rebel-held northern town of Khan Sheikhoun, activists said.

Mr al-Assad - in an interview with Turkey's Cumhuriyet daily published yesterday - blamed the revolt on Islamist militants from hostile Arab countries and an alleged western plot to break up Syria or plunge it into civil war.

"The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected," he said. "The fight against terrorism will continue decisively in the face of this."

He noted that US backing, as well as a strong army, had not prevented Iran's shah being toppled in a revolution in 1979.

"Everybody was calculating that I would fall in a small amount of time. They all miscalculated," he said.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have promised to fund Syrian rebels and support arming them.

Russia, which condemns outside backing for Syrian insurgents whom it regards as dangerous Islamist militants, dismissed suggestions that it might grant Mr al-Assad political asylum.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described such rumours as "an attempt to mislead serious people dealing with foreign policy or a lack of understanding of Russia's position".

Russia and China have repeatedly said Syrians must determine the fate of their country.

The world backed a peace plan brokered in April by Kofi Annan, the envoy of the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League, but it never took effect.

The head of a UN mission sent to monitor Mr Annan's ceasefire said the observers must stay in Syria even though there was no truce and violence was reaching an "unprecedented level".

Gen Robert Mood said the 300-strong mission should be restructured to help support the political dialogue viewed as the only way out of the crisis.

Mr al-Assad's forces have killed over 15000 people in 16 months of violence, Syrian dissidents and western leaders say. Damascus says rebels have killed many soldiers and security men.

Activists said Syrian forces pursuing their latest offensive had killed at least 11 people as they entered Khan Sheikhoun in an armoured assault from the south at dawn after a fierce bombardment. "They are burning houses and farms," a resident, Abu al-Ghaith al-Khani, said, adding that 80% of residents had fled.

Syrian forces also shelled the shattered city of Homs and Harasta, activists said.

n The WikiLeaks website said yesterday it had begun publishing more than 2-million e-mails from Syrian government officials that would embarrass Damascus and its opponents.

Reuters

The big game targeting Syria is much bigger than we expected.. The fight against terrorism will continue decisively