DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A senior Syrian government minister on Sunday dismissed as a "joke" plans by the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria to hold elections and said they would not be allowed to threaten the country's territorial unity.
Deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad also said the Syrian government must eventually assert control over Kurdish-led areas, which until now Damascus has tolerated in an uneasy relationship.
"[The elections] will be a joke. Syria will never ever allow any part of its territory to be separated," Mekdad said in Damascus in an interview with Reuters and the BBC.
Syria's multi-sided conflict has turned the country into a patchwork of areas controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, various rebel groups, Islamic State militants and Kurdish-led groups.
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Kurdish groups and their allies control swathes of the north in areas held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of militias spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG.
At the end of July the Kurdish-led administration there set dates between late summer and January for local council and regional assembly elections in a move apparently aimed at consolidating its growing autonomy.
The Kurdish groups have carved out self-governing regions since early in the six-year conflict, but they say they are not seeking independence from Damascus.
"We believe that in the north of Syria we have Syrian citizens who will not endanger the situation in the country or move ahead to any manifestation of dividing Syria. Those who will move in those directions know what price they have to pay," Mekdad said.
When asked if the Syrian government was willing to take back control of areas now controlled by Kurdish groups he said: "It is not a matter of 'willing' it is a matter of 'must'."
"The territorial integrity of Syria will never be under dispute," he said.
Mekdad said it was the responsibility of the international community to maintain Syria's unity.
He reiterated Damascus's regular call for external countries to stop funding groups fighting in the conflict.
He also urged the United States to stop its activities inside Syria, saying he believed its actions were illegal and were costing "thousand of lives".
A U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State supports the SDF with air strikes and other military assistance in its fight to oust the hardline jihadist group from Syria.
The coalition, which investigates reports of civilian deaths as a result of its campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, said in early July at least 600 civilians had been killed in its air strikes in the two countries since the operation began in 2014. War monitors in Syria and Iraq put the tolls much higher.
(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Richard Balmforth)