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Foreign plotters trying to destabilise Syria: Assad

11 January, 2012

BEIRUT: In his first speech since June, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed, on Tuesday, to respond to threats against him with an "iron hand" and refused to step down, insisting he still has his people's support despite a 10-month-old revolt.

Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy is behind the unrest - not true reform-seekers - and he blamed the news media for fabrications.

"Our priority now is to regain security in which we basked for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand," Assad said in a nearly two-hour speech to a cheering crowd packed with well-dressed supporters at Damascus University. "We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

By turns defiant and threatening, Assad has refused to give in to the most serious threat to his family's 40-year dynasty in Syria. He showed a steely confidence in his speech even as opposition forces said he was dangerously out of touch.

Assad, 46, also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Assad agreed to on December 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.

"The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests," Assad said. "We shouldn't be surprised it's failed today."

Kuwait's official news agency KUNA reported that a group of Arab League observers was attacked by "unknown protesters" in the northern city of Latakia on Monday and two Kuwaiti army officers were lightly injured.

Online footage posted by activists showed what appears to be a white Arab League vehicle swarmed by Assad supporters in Latakia, some of them dancing on top of the car. Another video shows an Arab League vehicle, battered and with deflated tires, struggling to drive as demonstrators surround it, shouting Assad's nickname "Abu Hafez," meaning father of Hafez.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby held the Syrian government responsible for ensuring the safety of its observers. But in a statement the League blamed both the government and the opposition forces for the attacks.

The violence is "an attempt to foil its mission, which is to solve the Syrian crisis," he said.

Also on Tuesday, activists said Syrian security forces shot dead at least 10 people in the eastern city of Deir el Zour despite the presence of an Arab observer mission in the area.

Despite the high casualty toll, Assad denied any policy to shoot demonstrators. "There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen," he said.

Nevertheless, his priority was to restore order, which could only be achieved by "hitting terrorists with an iron fist".

"The speech didn't bring anything new that could end the crisis and its repercussions," said Hassan Abdul Azim, a prominent opposition figure in Syria.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) branded Tuesday's keynote address by President Bashar al-Assad an "incitement to violence," indicating "more criminal behaviour" by the regime.

Russia said on Tuesday Arab League monitors are playing a stabilising role in Syria, disagreeing with Syrian opposition figures who say the mission has only given President Bashar al-Assad more time to crush opponents.


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