Al-Assad claims popular support, as 31 killed in Syria

Al-Assad claims popular support, as 31 killed in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday vowed to stay in power, and in a rambling speech that lasted more than one-and-a-half hours, blamed Syria's 10-month unrest on "foreign conspiracies," and promised a referendum on a new constitution, dpa reported.

"I am not the one to run away from my responsibility," al-Assad said to resounding applause at Damascus University. "There is no value for any post without the popular support."

"We're fighting an unprecedented battle in the history of Syria, but victory is near," he said. "The priority is to retain order and we will (deal with) terrorists with an iron fist."

It was his fourth public address since the anti-government uprising began in March. The United Nations estimates that 5,000 people have since died in the government's crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

On Tuesday, security forces killed 31 protesters, most of them in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, activists said.

Protests erupted in the central province of Homs as al-Assad was speaking, prompting his troops to fire at the demonstrators, Omar Homsi, a Syrian activist, told dpa by phone from the area.

"Death to the devil," Homsi quoted the protesters as chanting.

In demonstrations in other parts of the country people were heard chanting: "We want freedom."

Al-Assad denied giving orders to shoot at protesters. "Some say that officials who committed murders were not arrested. This is not true. Security forces were not allowed to shoot at citizens, unless in certain cases such as self-defence or if the person was armed."

He also used the forum to repeat his claim that a "foreign conspiracy" was behind the unrest.

In an attempt to appease his domestic audience, the president assured them that a decree had been issued to establish a committee to draft a new constitution. He also promised to hold a national referendum in March on the new constitution.

"I have great confidence in the future and this all comes from the people's will and belief in the sovereignty of Syria," he said.

The speech was also his first after Damascus agreed in December to allow an Arab League observer mission in the country.

Al-Assad accused the 22-member organization of worsening the situation in the region, but said that he "will not close the door in front of any Arab initiative as long as it respects Syria's sovereignty."

About 165 Arab League monitors are in the country to determine whether Damascus is abiding by the plan to stop violence and pull weapons off the streets.

Several observers were injured in attacks Tuesday in the port city of Latakia and the eastern city Deir al-Zour, and their equipment was damaged.

The bloc's secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, said: "The Arab League denounces the irresponsible action and acts of violence against the League's observers.

"It considers the Syrian government totally responsible for the protection of the members of the observer mission."

The United Arab Emirates also criticized Syria for not facilitating the work of the observers.

"The job of the observers is getting more difficult day after day ... We do not see a commitment from the Syrian side that would allow them to do their job," said the UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

In his speech, al-Assad said Syria was open to dialogue. "We do not have a problem with dialogue and ... we are open to it. When we see everyone is ready to engage in talks, then we are ready to begin dialogue right away."

Sheikh Anas Airout, a member of the Syrian opposition, told dpa by phone that al-Assad's regime was living "on another planet and all its policies and promises are just pure lies."

"We the opposition will never accept to sit with this killer on the same table for dialogue," opposition member Bassam al-Imadi told broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Burhan Ghalyoun, the chief of Syria's National Council - a diaspora group of 140 leaders, said al-Assad's speech was an "incitement to more violence."

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