Assad peace plan scorned
A defiant President Bashar al-Assad presented what he described as a new initiative yesterday to end the war in Syria but his opponents dismissed it as a ploy to cling to power.
Appearing before cheering supporters packing the Damascus Opera House, it was his first such speech since June and first public appearance of any kind since a television interview in November.
He called for national mobilisation in a "war to defend the nation", describing rebels fighting his regime as terrorists and foreign agents with whom it was impossible to negotiate.
His new initiative, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude "those who have betrayed Syria", contained no concessions.
The initiative appeared to recycle proposals that his opponents have rejected since the uprising began nearly two years ago.
The opposition National Coalition said the speech was an attempt to thwart an international agreement, backed by Western and Arab powers, that he must stand down.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "empty promises of reform fool no one".
Hague tweeted: "Death, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are of his own making."
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels would "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".
Assad, whose speech was broadcast on Syrian state television, spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists.
- The UN says 60000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria. Fighting has reached the outskirts of the capital in this longest and bloodiest conflict in two years of revolt in Arab states.
The past six months have seen rebels advance dramatically.
They now control much of the north and east of the country, a crescent of suburbs on the outskirts of the capital and the main border crossings with Turkey.
But Assad's forces are still firmly in control of most of the densely populated southwest, the main north-south highway and the Mediterranean coast.
The rebels are drawn mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority.
Assad is supported by some members of religious minorities who fear Sunni retribution if he falls.
He has the backing of Shia Iran but most Arab and Western powers sympathise with the rebels.