- Bashar al-Assad - Syria - unrest
Assad makes rare public address in Damascus
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joined thousands of his supporters Wednesday, appearing in public for the first time in six months at a rally in the capital Damascus, where he vowed to defeat a "conspiracy" against the country.
AFP - President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance on Wednesday, vowing to defeat a "conspiracy" against Syria a day after he blamed foreign interests for stoking months of deadly violence.
Meanwhile, a French television journalist was killed in the flashpoint city of Homs, the first Western reporter to die since protests erupted in March.
He was identified by France 2 as Gilles Jacquier, an award-winning correspondent who had worked for the channel since 1999 and had covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Israel.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called for a probe, saying in a statement: "We vigorously condemn this odious act."
Other reporters were also wounded when a rocket exploded as they were on a government-organised trip, an AFP photographer said.
The photographer said one of those hurt was a Belgian, who was hit in the eye.
Jens Franssen, a reporter with Belgium's VRT television, said around 15 journalists on the visit were in Homs, when "three or four grenades exploded near us. A French colleague probably did not survive."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "rockets hit between the quarters of Akrama and Al-Nuzha where there was a group of journalists. A Western journalist was killed, as well as six Syrians, and there were also wounded."
Militants in Homs blamed the authorities for the incident. The Observatory did not lay any blame.
Assad, speaking to tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the capital's Omayyad Square, said that "without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans."
Casually dressed in a jacket and open-necked shirt, a confident-looking Assad stood at the edge of the throng, security guards in front of him, and said: "I came here to draw from your strength. Thanks to you, I have never felt weak.
His wife Asma was also present, smiling and looking relaxed.
There were pro-regime demonstrations in other cities, and Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman claimed that "government workers had been forced to attend," with soldiers in the southern city of Daraa "marching in civilian garb."
"Whoever wants to talk should come down into the street," said Assad, as he thanked his backers, many holding his portrait or waving Syrian flags, for "supporting the institutions of the state and the army."
The United Nations estimated last month that more than 5,000 people had been killed in the crackdown on anti-regime protests that erupted in March, and many of them have been gunned down during street protests.
Damascus accuses "armed terrorist gangs" of fomenting the bloodshed.
In a speech on Tuesday, his first public appearance in months, Assad vowed to crush "terrorism" with an iron fist.
"Regional and international parties who are trying to destabilise Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events," the embattled leader said in the nearly two-hour speech.
That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing Syria toward civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting in the protests against his regime.
Amid the finger-pointing, activists said four civilians were killed on Wednesday near the central city of Hama and that loyalist troops were clashing with deserters.
The Syrian Observatory also said regime forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse students in Daraya, in Damascus province, and townspeople in the province of Idlib had declared general strike to protest against harsh living conditions.
Washington said Assad used his Tuesday speech to try to deflect the attention of his people from the fact that he had committed himself to end the violence.
"He's doing everything but what he needs to do," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
She said Assad must meet Syria's commitments to the Arab League to end the violence, withdraw heavy weapons from cities, admit journalists, free political prisoners and allow for real political dialogue.
Juppe said Assad was "divorced from reality" and accused him of inciting violence, while vigorously condemning attacks on Arab League observers in Syria.
In Istanbul, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, expressed alarm about Assad's "dangerous speech in which he stated his determination to use violence against our own people."
"He has cut short any Arab or other initiative to find a solution to the crisis," Ghalioun said, adding the speech showed Assad's "determination to divide and push the country towards civil war."
In New York, UN Assistant Secretary General B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that 400 people had been killed since Arab League observers began their work on December 26 to assess Assad's implementation of the peace deal.
Critics say the Arab observer mission has been completely outmanoeuvred by the government in Damascus, with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood accusing it of covering up "crimes of the Syrian regime."
One observer, Algerian Anwar Malek, announced on Wednesday he had quit, accusing the regime of committing war crimes and of duping his colleagues.
"The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled. The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime," Malek told Al-Jazeera television.
"What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime isn't committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people," he charged.
In other developments, authorities on nearby Cyprus said they had released a briefly detained Russian-owned cargo ship bearing munitions bound for Syria after receiving assurances the vessel would not proceed there.