ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Syrian tribal leader apologised on Tuesday for backing President Bashar al-Assad on state television, saying a gun was being pointed at his head while he made the broadcast last year.
Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, who has since fled to Turkey, said he in fact wanted the overthrow of the Syrian government which has cracked down violently on anti-Assad protesters.
Bashir, who heads the main Baqqara tribe in rebellious Deir al-Zor province, disowned his comments supporting the Syrian government made under duress in October after a spell in jail.
"I apologise to the Syrian people for the words I have said. I now declare that we want nothing but to topple the regime," he told a news conference in Istanbul.
The interview on Syrian television showed Bashir sitting on a chair, with any weapon outside the picture.
Bashir said that following his arrest at the end of July, he spent 72 days in prison where he was pressured into cooperating by security agents who made threats against his family.
"They threatened to demolish with tanks the house where my family lives," Bashir said. "I praised the (reform) process but while I was making that speech I had a gun pointed at my head."
The tribal leader, who commands the loyalty of an estimated 1.2 million Baqqara, said that after his release he had fled to Turkey across the mountainous border.
U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed in the violence across Syria while the government says 2,000 members of its security forces have died.
Bashir, whose tribal homeland is in the oil-producing east of Syria, declared his support for the opposition Syrian Free Army, and said the United Nations Security Council should implement a buffer zone and no fly zone to protect civilians.
He said he was undecided over whether to join the main opposition Syrian National Council, but declared his enmity toward the Assad family that has ruled over Syria for more than four decades.
"They are nothing but mafia, they are tyrants, sinners and murderers," he said, criticising Syria's traditional allies, Russia and Iran. "The Syrian regime is supported by international powers. They are buying weapons from Russia, Iran," he said.
Reporting by Yesim Dikmen; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by David Stamp