BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's foreign minister defiantly dismissed rebel forces and their international backers on Thursday as incapable of toppling the military defending Bashar Assad's regime, even as condemnation grew over expanded offensives that activists say have claimed dozens of civilian lives in recent days.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem's confident tone contrasted sharply with a series of recent blows to Assad, including high-level military and political defections and the ability of rebel guerrillas to stage bombings and abductions in the heart of the capital, Damascus.
The timing of al-Moallem's interview on Syrian state TV also suggested attempts to reassure Assad's supporters at a time when Damascus has few reliable allies remaining. Iran stands firmly behind Assad, but the critical bonds are with U.N. Security Council members China and Russia, which have blocked efforts to impose sanctions and other measures to pressure Syria.
A Syrian envoy, Bouthaina Shaaban, was in Beijing on Thursday and described talks with China's foreign minister as "really great."
"Those who think that the Syrian Arab army will be defeated are dreaming," al-Moallem said.
He also repeated Syria's strong denunciations of key rebel backers, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia — main rivals of Iran that would like to undercut Tehran's most important alliance in the region. Syria has become perhaps the most complex proxy stakes of the Arab Spring, with Gulf Arab states, NATO member Turkey and the West working to weaken Assad's regime.
The U.N. is groping for ways to remain relevant as violence has all but eclipsed efforts for a peace plan. A U.N. military observer mission ends Sunday and will be replaced by a new civilian office to try to push ahead diplomatic bids to end the more than 17-month civil war, which activists say has left more than 20,000 people dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
A U.N. report on Wednesday said war crimes have been committed on both sides, including by Syrian government forces and allied militiamen blamed for the deaths of more than 100 people, nearly half of them children, in the village of Houla in May.
During a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius assailed Assad for "butchering his own people."
"The sooner he goes the better," he said.
Syrian forces, however, have stepped up campaigns to drive back rebel advances across Syria. One of the main battlegrounds is the country's largest city, Aleppo, where some areas have been pounded by weeks of government shelling and airstrikes.
Another struck Thursday just after dawn, targeting a bread line outside a bakery in Aleppo and killing at least 10 people, activists said.
Mohammad al-Hassan, an Aleppo-based activist who saw the aftermath of the attack, told The Associated Press by telephone that the shells hit at 6:30 a.m. when most people line up for bread — a staple that is running in short supply — before the day gets too hot.
"Three shells hit the street near the bakery and people who had been waiting were hit by shrapnel," he said. "There were people with their children there. It was like a river of blood."
Al-Hassan said he saw dead bodies on the pavement and also spoke to witnesses at the scene. The two main activist groups, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, confirmed the details of the attack. The Observatory said 20 people were killed in shelling of Aleppo on Thursday, including at least 10 outside the bakery.
A video posted by activists online showed the bloodied bodies of at least two young children covered with blankets and the corpses of three men soaked in blood that ran onto the pavement. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
On Wednesday, warplanes exacted a heavy toll with airstrikes on a residential neighborhood in the rebel-held town of Azaz close to the Turkish border. International watchdog Human Rights Watch said more than 40 people were killed and at least 100 wounded, many of them women and children. AP reporters saw nine bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including a baby.
The strikes leveled entire blocks in a poor neighborhood and sent panicked civilians fleeing for cover. So many were wounded that the local hospital locked its doors, directing residents to drive their injured to the nearby Turkish border for treatment on the other side.
"This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block," said Anna Neistat, acting emergencies director of Human Rights Watch. "Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life."
Azaz, which is home to around 35,000 people, is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites they captured in May. A series of hostage-takings by rebels — including grabbing a member of a powerful Lebanese Shiite clan — has touched off retaliatory abductions of Syrians in neighboring Lebanon and raised worries about the country being dragged into deeper unrest.
Lebanon is a volatile mix of pro- and anti-Syrian factions — many of them armed, such as the formidable Assad ally Hezbollah.
In Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, masked men believed to be backing the Syrian rebels set up roadblocks on a main highway. In a separate incident, gunmen attacked a car driven by a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, Joseph Abu-Fadel, breaking his car windows with stones as he was driving to Syria. He and three others were slightly injured.
Lebanese military units set up along the main airport highway in Beirut to avoid another protest by pro-Assad mobs, which blocked the road Wednesday and forced passengers to walk to catch their flights.
In Damascus, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the Syrian conflict has "become more intense and is too often indiscriminate" and estimated as many as 2.5 million people are in need of relief assistance.
Later, in Beirut, Amos expressed frustration at Syria's reluctance to allow more major international aid groups into the country because of Syrian fears that relief supplies could reach rebels."They don't want to see that happen," she said.
In another symbolic blow to Syria, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria from the group during a meeting in Saudi Arabia. The move brought a swift denunciation from Iran, Assad's main regional ally.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, criticized the decision as "unfair" because Syria was not invited to the Mecca summit, which wrapped up early Thursday.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Sarah Di Lorenzo in Paris and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.