GENEVA - Syrian President Bashar Assad is battling al Qaida-backed "terrorists" including at least 15,000 foreign fighters who will seize towns across Syria if government troops withdraw, a Russian diplomat said on Thursday.
Russia is a staunch defender of Syria despite international condemnation of the crackdown by Assad's forces and evidence of human rights abuses against unarmed civilians.
Addressing a one-day humanitarian forum on Syria at the United Nations in Geneva, Russia's deputy ambassador Mikhail Lebedev said rebels had recently committed large-scale attacks against Syrian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals.
"Rebel groups attack, kill, torture and intimidate the civilian population. The flow of all kind of terrorists from some neighboring countries is always increasing," Lebedev told the forum.