Syrian President Bashar Assad has delivered a rare speech to supporters in a Damascus auditorium. He spoke of a new peace initiative but reiterated his refusal to negotiate with what he called "murderous criminals."
Syria's president, Bashar Assad, made a rare and uncompromising speech on Sunday, saying Syria would not take dictates from anyone.
"This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation," Assad said.
His speech in a large Damascus opera house was interrupted several times by applauding loyalists. They chanted: "With our blood, with our soul, we will defend you Assad."
He branded Syrian rebel forces as "enemies of the people" and said that "a revolution cannot come from outside," a barely concealed dig at foreign powers, such as the United States, that recently recognized Syria's political opposition.
He thanked Russia, China and Iran - his main allies - for their support.
Opposition rejects speech
A spokesman for Syria's western-recognized opposition National Coalition, Walid Bunni, rejected Assad's utterances, saying Assad "simply wanted" to wreck attempts by UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to find a solution to Syria's conflict in his current consultations with the United States and Russia.
Bunni told the news agency Reuters that the Syrian opposition would not accept such initiatives unless they included the departure of Assad and "his regime."
'Detached from reality'
In further reactions a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Assad must quit.
"We will look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition," said Ashton's spokesman in Brussels.
The US State Department said Assad's speech was "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people's goal of a political transition."
"His initiative is detached from reality, undermines the efforts of the Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, and would only allow the regime to further perpetuate its bloody oppression of the Syrian people," said State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Assad promises 'dialogue'
During his speech, the 47-year-old Assad promised "extensive contact with Syrian political parties" to work towards a national dialogue for a solution to Syria's 21-month-long conflict. He proposed the creation of a "national charter," which would be put to a referendum, and new parliamentary elections.
He claimed that "terrorists" from Asia and Europe had flooded into Syria to help the uprising against his rule. "All these people carry with them their ideology of al-Qaeda," he said.
Public statements by Assad have become rare. Assad has not addressed parliament in Damascus since June 3, 2012.
And, the last time that he made a speech was in November, when he insisted via Russian media that he would "live and die" in Syria.
Since then, rebels have consolidated their hold on territory in the country's north, launched an offensive in Hama and edged closer to Damascus.
The United Nations says at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March 2011.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two Arab heavyweights, have repeatedly called for the ouster of Assad.
sej/ipj (Reuters, AFP)