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Assad denies ordering brutal Syrian crackdown

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied ordering the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Wednesday, claiming that most of the people who died in the unrest over the last nine months were his troops and supporters.


AFP - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied ordering the killing of thousands of protesters and said "only a crazy person" would target his own people as global pressure mounted Wednesday on his regime.

In a rare interview, Assad said that he was not responsible for the nine months of bloodshed and drew a distinction between himself and the military -- an assertion that the United States called "ludicrous."

"We don't kill our people," Assad told US network ABC. "No government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person."

"There was no command to kill or be brutal," Assad told veteran ABC News interviewer Barbara Walters.

Assad said that security forces belonged to "the government" and not him personally.

"I don't own them. I'm president. I don't own the country. So they are not my forces," Assad said.

Assad's family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for four decades. Assad's brother, Lieutenant Colonel Maher al-Assad, heads the army's Fourth Division, which oversees the capital as well as the elite Republican Guard.

The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 people have died as Syria cracks down on protesters, who have emerged as the greatest challenge yet to Assad amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world that have toppled authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Assad dismissed the death toll, saying: "Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?"

"Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa," Assad said in English, giving a figure of 1,100 dead soldiers and police.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner dared Assad to back up his assertions by letting in international observers and media, saying that there was a "clear campaign against peaceful protesters."

"It either says that he's completely lost any power that he had within Syria, that he's simply a tool or that he's completely disconnected with reality," Toner told reporters Wednesday.

"It's either disconnection, disregard or, as he said, crazy. I don't know," Toner said.

Toner, reacting a day earlier to excerpts of the interview, called Assad's denial of responsibility "ludicrous," triggering a rebuke from Syria's foreign ministry which accused him of distorting the remarks.

Syria has come under growing international pressure, with Arab nations and Turkey joining Western powers in pursuing sanctions against Assad.

Turkey, which had close economic ties with Syria, on Wednesday announced a 30 percent tax on goods from the neighboring country. Turkey has already banned transactions with Syria's government and central bank.

Syrian official media said its border forces late Monday thwarted an attempt by 35 gunmen to infiltrate from Turkey. But a Turkish diplomat denied military activity and pledged that the country would not be a springboard for attacks.

The Arab League has suspended Syria and has threatened new sanctions if Assad does not allow in observers. Syria initially refused but at the last minute offered to let in monitors in return for an end to sanctions.

Alistair Burt, the British Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, hailed the efforts by the Arab League and voiced hope for greater action by Russia, the key ally of the Assads since the Soviet era.

"The isolation of Syria will continue and intensify," Burt told AFP as he visited Libya in the wake of the overthrow and killing of leader Moamer Kadhafi.

In the ABC News interview, Assad brushed aside the international pressure, saying: "We've been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It's not something new."

The conflict is said to have taken a heavy toll on children who either took part in protests or were targeted because of their parents' involvement. A UN-appointed investigator said that Syria killed 56 children in November alone.

In one high-profile case, Assad denied charges that Syrian forces tortured to death 13-year-old boy Hamza al-Khatib, who rights groups say was shot, burned and castrated in April.

"Every 'brute reaction' was by an individual, not by an institution, that's what you have to know," Assad said.

"There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference."

The United States and France on Tuesday sent their ambassadors back to Syria in hopes that they can shine light on the violence and show solidarity with protesters, weeks after the envoys were pulled out due to safety concerns.

Looking to the post-Assad future, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Tuesday in Geneva with the dissident Syrian National Council and urged the protection of women and minorities.


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