Opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib visited rebel-held towns in north Syria for the first time on Sunday as rebel fighters seized an army outpost outside Aleppo.

The capture of the police academy at Khan al-Asal, used by President Bashar Assad’s forces as an artillery base to support troops still holding around 40 percent of the northern city, came after days of fighting in which rebels killed 150 soldiers, while sustaining heavy casualties, a rebel source said.



In an attempt to consolidate those gains on the ground and strengthen links between Assad’s military and civilian foes, Alkhatib crossed into northern Syria from Turkey and toured the towns of Jarablus and Minbij.

Earlier, he attended a meeting of 220 rebel commanders and opposition campaigners in the Turkish city of Gaziantep to elect an administration for the Aleppo province, home to 6 million people.

Alkhatib, a 52-year-old former preacher at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, was chosen in November to head the coalition of political opposition to Assad. He won modest pledges of support for the rebels from Western and Arab ministers in Rome last week.

He has said he is ready for talks with representatives of Assad’s government to help find a political solution to the civil war.

Assad, in an interview with British newspaper The Sunday Times, said his government was prepared to talk to fighters who lay down their weapons but insisted he would not leave the country or step aside under foreign pressure.

“We are ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms,” he said according to a transcript released by state media. However, there would be no talks with “terrorists who are determined to carry weapons,” he added.

“We have to be clear about this. We have opposition that are political entities and we have armed terrorists. We can engage in dialogue with the opposition, but we cannot engage in dialogue with terrorists.

We fight terrorists.”

Alkhatib’s opposition coalition says that any talks must focus on Assad’s departure, while rebel leaders have set even tougher conditions, insisting he depart before they start talks.

But Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, said he was not going anywhere. “No patriotic person will think about living outside his country. I am like any other patriotic Syrian,” he told the newspaper.

In response to calls from some Western and Arab governments for him to go, Assad replied, “Only [the] Syrian people can tell the president: Stay or leave, come or go.”

In the same interview, Assad said he would react to Israel’s alleged bombing of a research center in his country.

Assad told the paper that Syria had always retaliated to Israeli actions, “but we retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced.”

At the beginning of February, Assad accused Israel of trying to destabilize his country by attacking a military research base outside Damascus, and warning Syria could “confront threats... and aggression” against it.

Israel has not confirmed its involvement in the Syrian attack. However, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, hinted in comments he made at a Munich Security Conference in February that Israel was behind the attack.

“I cannot add anything to what you have read in the newspapers about what happened in Syria several days ago,” he said. “But I keep telling frankly that we said – and that’s another proof when we say something, we mean it – we say that we don’t think [Syria] should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon, and [nor should] Hezbollah [bring weapons] from Syria when Assad falls.”

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