Monday, January 7, 2013

Syrians brush off Assad speech, fighting continues

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Fighting raged across Syria on Monday, including just a few miles from where President Bashar al-Assad had unveiled a "peace plan" that Syrians on both sides said would do nothing to end a 21-month-old uprising.

Hours after Assad addressed cheering loyalists at the Damascus Opera House on Sunday in his first public speech in months, clashes erupted near the road to the city's international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The opposition-linked group said artillery hit the district of Arqaba, 3 miles from the Opera House. Fighting continued all night and into Monday around the capital, as well as in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, it said.

In central Syria, the towns of Taybet Imam and Halfaya were bombarded with aerial strikes and artillery, said Abu Faisal, an activist speaking over the internet from Taybet Imam.

"Every four to five minutes, we hear the burst from a rocket. We cannot get any wounded out because we are essentially under siege by the shelling," he said, adding that many civilians had fled. Taybet Imam sits on an entrance to Syria's main north-south highway, close to the central city of Hama.

The government restricts access by international media and the accounts could not be verified.

Damascus residents said Assad's speech, which offered no concessions to his foes, was met with celebratory gunfire in pro-Assad neighborhoods.

But even there, some saw no sign peace was closer: a loyalist resident of southern Damascus reached by internet said the speech was eloquent but empty.

"It sounded more like gloating than making promises," said the woman, who gave only her first name, Aliaa. "I agree with the ideas but words are really just words until he takes some action. He needs to do something. But even so, everything he suggests now, it is too late, the rebels aren't going to stop."

In the once-affluent district of Mezzeh, scene of several bomb attacks, an Assad critic said people had more pressing concerns than a TV speech. "Here, no one cares about this speech. They care about food and electricity."

Another said few people had watched the speech and that Assad's crackdown would not stop: "Military operations will continue in full swing, and he is staying."

France, the United States, Britain and Turkey all said Assad's speech, his first to an audience since June last year, showed he had lost touch with reality after unrest that the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Assad on Monday of "directing state terrorism".

The plan described by the Syrian leader as a new peace initiative proposed an army ceasefire only after rebels halt their operations and summoned Syrians to mobilize for a war to defend the state against "a puppet made by the West".


Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halki called on Monday for a special cabinet meeting to implement the "national program announced by President Bashar al-Assad yesterday to solve the crisis in Syria", the state news agency SANA said.

George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, said the putative peace plan "did not even deserve to be called an initiative".

"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people," he told Reuters.

The United States, Britain and Turkey have all dismissed the speech and France used similar language on Monday. "Bashar al-Assad's speech is further evidence of just how far he has cut himself off from reality in order to justify his repression of the Syrian people," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

Assad's main ally Iran defended the speech as offering a "comprehensive political process". "This plan rejects violence and terrorism and any foreign interference," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in a statement.

There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has acted as Assad's main protector on the diplomatic stage. Russian state offices were quiet for the Orthodox Christmas holiday.

Syrian state television played up the speech, showing footage of convoys of cars driving through main streets in Damascus. People waving the Syrian flag leaned out of car windows and some braved the cold and rain to walk alongside.

"It was a victorious speech that respects the martyred Syrian soldiers," said a man on state TV, adding that his brother had been killed fighting the opposition.

After six months of advances, rebels now control wide swathes of northern and eastern Syria, most of its border crossings with Turkey and a crescent of Damascus suburbs.

But Assad's government is still firmly entrenched in the capital and controls most of the densely-populated southwest, the Mediterranean coast, the main north-south highway and military bases countrywide. Its helicopters and jets are able to strike rebel-held areas with impunity.

Syria's civil war, now the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts to arise from the revolts that have swept many Arab countries in the last two years, risks spreading in the region.

U.S. military cargo planes carrying equipment and personnel arrived at the Incirlik air base in Turkey on Monday, part of a deployment of NATO Patriot anti-missiles to bolster security along Turkey's 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. Dutch Patriot missile batteries bound for Turkey left an army base in the Netherlands.

Late on Sunday, Lebanon's army received 200 armored vehicles, part of a package of U.S. military aid to help Lebanon protect itself from instability next door.

The war pits rebels, mainly drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, against Assad supporters, many of whom come from his Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam and other minority sects.

Israel has watched warily from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 war and which, prior to the anti-Assad insurgency, had been mostly quiet for decades.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday Israel would further reinforce its fence on the Golan armistice line to keep out jihadist rebels who, he said, had dislodged Assad's troops on the Syrian side.

(Additional reporting by Ayat Basma in Beirut, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Vicky Buffery in Paris; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)


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