Challenger backs off

Rifaat al-Assad, the exiled brother of Syria's late president, is not seeking to take control, his son said yesterday. "I know my father and he is not somebody who wants power," Soumar al-Assad told the Guardian.

"If he is sure that security has returned to Syria and that power is in the hands of the people he will rest quietly at home."

This sign of conciliation runs counter to the earlier insistence of a spokesman at Rifaat's home in Marbella that Rifaat "represents legitimacy in Syria" and is "awaiting the appropriate moment" to return. The apparent absence of wide support in Syria may have persuaded the Rifaat camp to cool its pronouncements for now.

Soumar, who runs Arabic News Network, a London-based satellite TV station transmitting to the Middle East, described yesterday's Damascus funeral for President Hafez al-Assad as "completely inhuman".

"They [the regime] are trying to profit from the crying of the people to create some kind of political gain. Now they are trying to make the people of Syria pay the price of creating an inexperienced leader [the dead president's son, Bashar] purely because he's the son of his father," he said. "They are doing this by jumping over the will of the people. This is very dangerous for the stability of Syria and the stability of the Middle East.

"The people of Syria are mostly in favour of Rifaat, not because he has beautiful eyes but because he has fought all his life for what they want."

Syria's authorities are reported to have ordered that Rifaat be arrested if he tries to return. Soumar refused to say where his father is - usually he is to be found in Spain or France - other than saying "he's in Europe".

Soumar said his father believed that democratic elections for the Syrian presidency should be held. "But before that, you need to restore democratic institutions, freedom of speech and stability based on institutions and not on a man."

Asked how his father's 1983 coup attempt squared with talk of democracy, Soumar said: "The coup attempt was against my father. Rifaat had a different idea from the Ba'ath party - he was against power being held in the hands of a few people."

On Rifaat's attitude to peace talks with Israel, his son said: "It's a complicated issue and my father's priority is to internal affairs."