Syria's Assad defiant

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Syria's Assad defiant

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President Bashar al-Assad has dismissed all suggestions he give up power, as bloody upheaval in Syria continues.

In a speech at Damascus University – his first public address since June – he insisted he still has his people’s support.

In spite of high casualties, he again refuted allegations he commanded state forces to fire on ordinary Syrians.

He said: “There is no order at any level to shoot at any civilian. Our priority is to regain security, which our country has enjoyed for decades. This can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand.”

The president said that a foreign conspiracy – which included Arabs – was at work to undermine Syria.

The revolt has gone on for ten months, with most independent media barred but with Internet postings of protests ending in bloodshed.

The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed. Damascus says 2,000 state soldiers and police have been killed.

Assad also talked about the Arab League, which since the end of December has had monitors in Syria trying to stop violence, but with little apparent effect.

He said: “We are not closing the door to any Arab initiative, providing Syrian sovereignty is respected.”

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in the 22-member body at the end of November, and imposed economic sanctions. The monitors were sent to see that Assad applied a plan he had agreed to earlier, to free prisoners, end repression, withdraw the army from towns and villages and to open dialogue with opposition groups.

The League says some of its monitors have been attacked by pro-Assad demonstrators in the cities of Latakia and Der el-Zor, and by opposition protesters in other areas.

The League condemned the Syrian government for not protecting them.

In Damascus, Assad also said he would bring in reforms – by choice, not because of pressure.

He offered a referendum on a new constitution in March and then a multi-party parliamentary election.

The Syrian opposition, riven by factional disagreements, has yet to form a widely accepted representative council.

The Assad family has dominated Syria for more than four decades.