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NORTHWEST NEWS

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McMenamins
CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) -- Despite a rapidly deteriorating conflict that has left thousands dead in nearly 18 months of violence, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says "the situation is much better."

"This military is carrying out its duties. The armed forces, the police and the security forces are carrying out heroic duties with every sense," al-Assad said in an interview to air Wednesday on the pro-government Al-Dounia TV.



The station released snippets of the interview Tuesday.

Al-Assad has consistently said government forces are battling terrorists in the nation, a term the regime uses to describe those seeking the president's ouster.

"If there's one Syrian citizen who knows one of these men who is hesitant and has that desire to desert (the terrorist groups), let him encourage him to do so," he said.

The president said the destiny of Syrians is in their hands, and he maintained that he remains at the presidential palace in Damascus.

"The battle is a battle of perseverance," he said. "But we will go over all of this and explain it with one sentence, and that is we are moving forward. Realistically, the situation is better."

Al-Assad rarely gives interviews but has appeared in public at various times. On Sunday, he met with senior Iranian officials in Damascus but did not give a speech. A week earlier, he attended prayer services at a mosque in the capital.

Here are the latest key developments in the crisis:

On the ground: Fighting rages

At least 74 people have been killed in Syria Wednesday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Thirty-six of those died in Damascus and its suburbs, and 12 deaths occurred in Idlib province. The LCC also reported government shelling and raids, including shelling that targeted the Grand Mosque in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Syrian state TV says "military fighters" killed members of "terrorist armed groups" who assaulted the military airport in the Idlib province town of Taftanaz.

Syrian diplomat disputes claims of heavy weaponry used against civilians

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Miqdad angrily disputed claims that the regime is using jet fighters and deploying heavy weaponry against civilians.

"This is the defense of the terrorists who are destroying everything," Miqdad told CNN's Reza Sayah on Wednesday. "Your country committed genocides in all parts of the world."

Miqdad is in Tehran, Iran, for the Non-Aligned Movement summit.

Deaths surpass 22,000, group says

More than 22,700 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, according to a group that documents the names of the dead.

The Violation Documenting Center, which works closely with the LCC, said more than 4,700 of those deaths occurred in Damascus and its suburbs and 1,846 in Aleppo.

In August alone, more than 1,640 were killed in Damascus and its suburbs, and nearly 740 died in Aleppo, the center confirmed.

U.S. State Department updates travel warning

The State Department is warning U.S. citizens against traveling to Syria and "strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately."

"The security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings," said the warning, which supersedes another issued a few weeks ago. "No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings."

"Communications in Syria are difficult as phone and Internet connections have become increasingly unreliable. The Department of State has received reports that U.S. citizens are experiencing difficulty and facing dangers when trying to leave Syria via land borders, and that seats on flights out of Syria are becoming increasingly scarce."

Turkey proposes a buffer zone

The Turkish foreign minister is proposing a United Nations-sanctioned buffer zone inside Syria to provide refugees with a haven and help distribute humanitarian aid. But al-Assad dismissed talks of such zones.

"I believe all the talks about safe zones, first, do not exist on the practical side, and secondly, it is not realistically possible even for those countries who are playing the transgressor or the rival role," he said in the Al-Dounia interview.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will bring up the proposal Thursday a U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria in New York.

"We are waiting for the U.N. to take steps toward ensuring the safety of the refugees inside Syria and if possible to be housed in camps there," Davutoglu said.

Rights groups call on neighboring nations to keep their borders open

Syria's neighbors are feeling the effects of the conflict as civilians flock to their nations.

About 9,000 Syrians converged on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, where screening procedures have ended at some border crossings, Human Rights Watch said.

Turkey has 80,410 refugees from Syria, Turkish officials said, the largest number among the neighboring countries.

Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have granted Syrians various types of legal status, including short-term renewable visas and temporary protection, the group said. They have not offered them refugee status, which offers specific rights under international law.

The rights group urged donor nations to support the refugees and called on Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to keep their borders open despite the swelling numbers.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official urged international help for the humanitarian crisis, including the refugee influx in Turkey.

"The expectation should not be for Turkey to do everything. The U.S. should help, the world community should help," the official said Wednesday. "There is a humanitarian drama unfolding in Syria. A solution needs to found. The U.S. should not remain silent and inactive."

Jordan opens hospital for Syrian refugees

Jordan set up a field hospital at refugee camps near the border with Syria to help those fleeing the civil war, Jordanian authorities said Tuesday.

Volunteer doctors and nurses from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and other nations will team up to provide free medical care to those displaced to Jordan.

CNN's Faith Karimi, Joe Sterling and Saad Abedine and Journalist Gul Tuysuz contributed to this report.

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