BEIRUT – Syrian President Bashar Assad denied Sunday that his governmenthad anything to do with last week's gruesome Houla massacre, sayingnot even "monsters" would carry out such an ugly crime. In a televised speech to parliament, Assad said his country isfacing a "real war" and blamed foreign-backed terrorists andextremists for the bloodshed. He pledged to press ahead with hismilitary crackdown. The president's first comments on the massacre expressed horrorover the deaths of more than 100 people, nearly half of themchildren. |
U.N. investigators say there are strong suspicions thatpro-government gunmen carried out the killings, but Assad deniedthat. "If we don't feel the pain that squeezes our hearts, as I felt it,for the cruel scenes — especially the children — thenwe are not human beings," Assad said. His last public address wasin January. Assad, 46, denies that there is any popular will behind theuprising, saying foreign extremists and terrorists are driving therevolt.
His remarks suggest he is still standing his ground, despitewidespread international condemnation over his deadly crackdown ondissent. Although his words reflected many of the same generalpoints of his previous speeches — blaming terrorists andextremists, vowing to protect national security — hiscomments on Houla were widely anticipated. "Not even monsters would carry out (the crimes) that we have seen,especially the Houla massacre. ... There are no Arabic or evenhuman words to describe it," he said.
Assad said his opponents have ignored his moves toward reform,including a referendum on a new constitution and recentparliamentary elections. He suggested this meant that the call fordemocracy was not the driving force of the revolt. "We will not be lenient. We will be forgiving only for those whorenounce terrorism," he said. Assad defended his regime's crackdown against the opposition,likening it to a surgeon performing an operation.
"When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans andamputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him, 'Your hands arestained with blood?' Or do we thank him for saving the patient?" "Today we are defending a cause and a country. We do not do thisbecause we like blood. A battle has been forced on us, and theresult is this bloodshed that we are seeing," he said. The opposition and the government have exchanged accusations overthe Houla killings, each blaming the other.
U.N. investigators havesaid there are strong suspicions that pro-regime gunmen areresponsible for at least some of the killings. The revolt began last March with mostly peaceful protests, but aferocious government crackdown led many in the opposition to takeup arms. Now, the conflict has morphed into an armed insurgency. Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, still has afirm grip on power in Syria some 15 months into a revolt that hastorn at the country's fabric and threatened to undermine stabilityin the Middle East.
Activists say as many as 13,000 people have died in the violence.One year after the revolt began, the U.N. put the toll at 9,000,but hundreds more have died since. A cease-fire plan brokered byinternational envoy Kofi Annan is violated by both sides every day.Fears also have risen that the violence could spread and provoke aregional conflagration. A group known as the Free Syrian Army is determined to bring downthe regime by force of arms, targeting military checkpoints andother government sites. A U.N.
observer team with nearly 300members has done little to quell the bloodshed. Al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common inSyria, and Western officials say there is little doubt thatIslamist extremists, some associated with the terror network, havemade inroads in Syria as instability has spread. Assad has acknowledged there are genuine calls for reform, althoughthe opposition says he has offered only cosmetic changes that dolittle to change a culture where any whisper of dissent could leadto arrest and torture. In Sunday's speech, Assad said the doors of Damascus were open fordialogue with the opposition — a key component of Annan'speace plan — but said only as long as the parties involvedhave no foreign agendas and have not been involved in terrorism.
He ridiculed protesters over their calls for freedom, suggestingmany of those taking part in demonstrations were paid killers, notpeople truly looking for reform. "This freedom that they called for has turned into the (human)remains of our sons and this democracy that they talked about isnow drowning in our blood," he said.
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