Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 7, 2012. / STR/AFP/GettyImages
BEIRUT Syrian President Bashar Assad "is not bluffing" about his determination to stay in power, Russia's foreign minister said in comments broadcast Friday, as negotiations to free 21 U.N. peacekeepers held by Syrian rebels dragged into a third day.
Also, the World Food Program said it aims to feed 2.5 million Syrians by next month, up from 1.7 million now. Need has risen sharply as growing numbers of Syrians are displaced by civil war and the country's economy is disintegrating.
The uprising against Assad erupted two years ago, with primarily peaceful protests deteriorating into a brutal civil war, initially in response to a harsh regime crackdown on dissent. More than 70,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.
The conflict has been deadlocked, with neither side able to get the upper hand, although the rebels have scored a series of strategic victories in recent weeks, seizing a provincial capital in the northeast, capturing the country's largest dam and overrunning a number of smaller military bases.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC in an interview broadcast Friday that the Syrian leader is digging in.
Assad "is not going to leave," Lavrov said. "We know this for sure, and all those who get in touch with him know that he is not bluffing."
Lavrov said Russia, a close Syria ally, will not pressure Assad to leave.
"It's not for me to decide, it's not for anybody else to decide, except the Syrian people," Lavrov said.
Syria's opposition has criticized the West for not helping arm rebel fighters at a time when Russia and Iran are supporting the regime with weapons.
Earlier this week, Britain announced it would provide armored vehicles and other equipment to the rebels, while stopping short of arming them. The West has balked at sending arms, fearing the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists fighting in the rebel ranks.
In India, Assad adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Britain's decision will only prolong the fighting. She alleged that most of the rebels are linked to the al Qaeda terror network and conservative Islamic groups.
"Britain should not think that terror activities by such groups in Syria, will not one day go back to haunt Europe or Britain," said Shaaban who is in India for talks with Indian leaders to rally support for Assad.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government is trying to win the release of 21 U.N. peacekeepers, all Filipinos, who were seized by Syrian rebels on Wednesday.
Government officials initially said they expected the U.N. troops to be freed Friday, but said rebels stuck to demands that regime forces first withdraw from the area where the hostages are being held.
The peacekeepers were taken near the Syrian village of Jamlah, less than a mile from the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where a U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.