GENEVA Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is battling al Qaeda-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.
Asked by Reuters how many foreign fighters were believed to be in Syria, he said: "How many got in through illegal routes? The border there is not demarcated, not delimited, so nobody knows. But at least 15,000."
On Thursday, Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, said he would urge Assad and his foes to stop fighting and seek a political solution, drawing angry rebukes from dissidents.
Russia wants a ceasefire by all parties and an inclusive political dialogue. Lebedev told the U.N. meeting criticism of Assad was overdone.
"We urge our partners not to yield to temptation to exaggerate things but to expedite a balanced and professional approach to delivering help to all segments of the Syrian population with no exception," he said.
"Most of the militants are indeed directly or closely affiliated with al Qaeda."
Lebedev told Reuters the information about al Qaeda links in Syria was an "unambiguous fact" but declined to say if Russia would provide the U.N. with evidence to back its allegation Syrian rebels were committing torture.
"All I know is that all the way through (the wars in the Russian region of) Chechnya nobody believed us when we said the Islamic underground, including terrorist organizations, was developing its operations on our soil," he said.
"It's just that five years later there's a recognition that we did everything right."
Lebedev said attempts to force Assad to rein in his troops unilaterally would be counterproductive.
"If we demand that the Syrian government withdraw its forces from the cities without addressing the same call to the opposition we should be ready (to see) that the relevant towns will immediately be occupied by the violent armed groups," he said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Sophie Hares)