PARIS Arab countries are sending mercenaries to Syria to thwart any chance of a negotiated settlement to end President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on a year-long uprising against his rule, Iran's ambassador to France said on Thursday.
Iran, a close ally of Assad's government, was initially very supportive of the way the Syrian authorities were putting down the uprising, but has lately been saying that Assad should enact reforms that take account of popular grievances.
Speaking in an interview with Reuters in Paris, Iran's newly appointed envoy, Ali Ahani, accused certain Arab countries of financing and supplying weapons to those opposing Assad.
"We have information about money, weapons and mercenaries that are being sent there to disrupt things," the former deputy foreign minister said, declining to say where the mercenaries were coming from.
"There is information that certain Arab countries have sent them (mercenaries)and been financed by the United States and even Israel," he added, without naming the Arab states.
Sunni Saudi Arabia, which along with Qatar is leading Arab efforts to force Assad to step aside, has publicly called for rebels fighting the government to be armed but Ahani did not name Saudi Arabia.
He alleged that the intervention was preventing the opposition and Assad from reaching a negotiated settlement, saying that such a settlement was the only hope of solving the crisis.
"It's obvious there is a manipulation that isn't allowing the government or opposition to try to hold dialogue and come to an agreement to resolve the internal problems," he said.
"We are concerned for the future of Syria and its people."
The United Nations has said that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the protests started a year ago. Assad has continued to use tanks and troops against the protesters despite growing pressure from the West and Arab states for the bloodletting to stop.
Non-Arab, Shi'ite Muslim Iran has backed other "Arab Spring" uprisings that toppled several Western-allied dictators in predominantly Sunni Muslim North Africa. But it has steadfastly continued to support Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Facing its own dispute with the West over its nuclear programme, Iran could become increasingly isolated if Assad were to fall.
Ahani said Assad's government had to meet the demands of the Syrian people, but said overseas interference was making that more difficult.
"We can't impose a solution from overseas to resolve the internal problems of Syria," he said. "The opposition and government must be encouraged to try and resolve themselves the problem. There are demands of the Syrian people that have to be respected and that's what we said to the Syrian government."
There are unconfirmed reports that Tehran has been helping the Syrian government manage the crisis. But when asked if advisers had been sent to Damascus to help Assad, Ahani said Syria was a sovereign state that made its own decisions.
"The narrow relationship we have with Syria is clear and well diversified, but that doesn't mean that all the decisions of the Syrian government are rubber-stamped or not by Iran," he said.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Andrew Osborn)