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Syrian deputy FM denies forced starvation, chemical attacks by regime

By Frederik Pleitgen and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. Treasury Department announces sanctions on two al Qaeda leaders
  • Faisal al Mekdad says the regime has never used chlorine gas a weapon
  • Human Rights Watch says it has evidence the regime launched a chemical attack
  • Mekdad also denies that the government has starved people in Homs into submission

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Chemical attacks with chlorine gas. Barrel bombs dropped from regime helicopters. Syrians starved into submission in opposition-controlled areas.

The alleged assaults by the Syrian government against its own people are atrocious. But in an exclusive interview with CNN's Frederik Pleitgen, the country's deputy foreign minister says such claims are rubbish.

"I assure you 100% that chlorine gas has never been used by the government," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad said.

Chlorine gas attack alleged in Syria

His assertion came shortly after Human Rights Watch said it had strong evidence that showed regime forces carried out a chlorine gas attack in the rebel-held village of Kfar Zeita. According to the rights group, 11 people were killed and 500 were injured in three towns following the gas attack.

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People carry an injured man away from the site of an airstrike, reportedly carried out by Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, July 27. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war. People carry an injured man away from the site of an airstrike, reportedly carried out by Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, July 27. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising in March 2011 spiraled into civil war.
Syrian civil war in 2014
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Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014 Photos: Syrian civil war in 2014

But Mekdad acknowledged that the government is not fighting lightly against opposition forces.

"My friend, we shall not attack them with flowers, because they are not attacking us with flowers," he said. "They are attacking with most sophisticated weapons, given to them by the United States, given to them by Europe, given to them by Turkey, given to them by the Saudis and others."

Last September, a U.S. official said CIA-funded weapons have started flowing to Syrian rebels.

A rebel leader told CNN at the time that he "can't talk about weapons," though he did stress that opposition forces were getting help.

"We are getting now a lot of support from our American friends, but I can't talk in detail about all kinds of the support," he said.

Sanctions from United States

On Wednesday, the United States announced sanctions against two al Qaeda leaders operating in Syria. The U.S. Treasury Department took action against Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Dubaysi Al-Juhni and 'Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa Al-Qaduli.

The pair were named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, meaning any assets they may have under U.S. jurisdiction are frozen, and U.S. citizens are prohibited from doing business with them.

According to the Treasury Department, Al-Juhni was one of a group of senior al Qaeda members who conducted operations against Western targets.

Al-Qaduli is a senior official in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq, the department said. He is based in Syria for the terrorist network.

Al-Qaeda is one of the groups of fighters who have entered the battlefield in Syria. Their alliance with some factions of the opposition has led to tensions and rifts between those fighting against the Syrian government.

"Our action today highlights al Qaeda's and similar groups' efforts to take advantage of the unrest in Syria and sends a strong warning to the legitimate Syrian opposition and those who wish to support it that they must reject the attempts of (terrorist groups) to elicit support for their cause by preying on the sympathies of the international community for the plight of the Syrian people," Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in a statement.

Claims of forced starvation

Mekdad also vehemently denied claims that the regime has been cutting off food access to people in Homs, which has been an opposition stronghold during much of the country's 3-year civil war.

"We are not starving anybody. We are trying to reach all those civilians under the control (of the rebels). And on different occasions, many convoys carrying humanitarian aid have gone but were turned back by the terrorist groups," Mekdad said.

The Syrian regime has consistently referred to opposition fighters as "terrorists."

"If they are speaking about (the) starving of terrorism and terrorists, yes we have to do our best, and I think this is our right to do it," Mekdad added.

Syrians return to Homs to see what war left them

Botched truce

A truce began May 7 in Homs, and opposition fighters and their families there were evacuated to Addar al-Kabira, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

But government forces shelled Addar al-Kabira this week, according to the opposition.

Report: Strong evidence Syria used gas
Cleanup starts in Homs after truce
The plight of Syria's refugees

"The regime's shelling of the town of Addar al-Kabira north of Homs, to where rebels of Homs retreated in line with a deal organized by the U.N., makes evident the falsity of the truces that the Assad regime seeks to promote," Nasser al-Hariri, a member of the Syrian Coalition, said in a statement Tuesday.

Originally, the opposition had agreed to allow aid into pro-government neighborhoods in Aleppo, both Shiite enclaves, in exchange for the safe passage of fighters out of Homs.

Survival in a siege: leaves become food, faith becomes strength

Election coming up

Despite the ongoing war that has killed more than 100,000 people, Mekdad said the country is "absolutely" fit to hold a presidential election on June 3.

When asked how Syrians in war-torn Aleppo would be able vote, the deputy foreign minister lambasted the United States and European countries.

"This double standard by certain ... European countries and the United States among others -- they don't want anything to move in Syria. They don't want legitimacy in Syria. They want the disintegration of this country," Mekdad said.

"Or, in fact if we have to take into full consideration what they want: They don't want Syria to exist, or they want to hand Syria over to terrorist groups."

The United Nations has asked the government to reconsider the election as the carnage continues to mount every day.

But even if Syria proceeds with a presidential vote, the election might not yield any significant change.

President Bashar al-Assad's family has had a tight grip on power in Syria for the past 43 years. Al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000 and won a second term in 2007, unopposed.

Al-Assad is running again this year.

READ: U.N. envoy to Syria resigns as truce falters

READ: Attacks kill nearly 60 in Homs, Damascus, Syrian media report

READ: Russia, Syria, Middle East: Is the U.S. losing its ability to sway allies?

Frederik Pleitgen reported from Damascus; Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz and Barbara Starr also contributed to this report.

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