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Assad vows to fight on in speech

BEIRUT -- A defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad rallied a chanting and cheering crowd yesterday to fight the uprising against his authoritarian rule, dismissing any chance of dialogue with "murderous criminals" he blames for nearly two years of violence that has left 60,000 dead.

In his first public speech in six months, Assad laid out terms for a peace plan that keeps him in power, ignoring international demands to step down and pledging to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left" in Syria.

"What we started will not stop," he said, standing at a lectern on stage at the regal Opera House in central Damascus, a sign by the besieged leader that he sees no need to hide or compromise even with the violent civil war closing in on his seat of power in the capital.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Assad's latest plan is "detached from reality" and would only allow the regime to continue its oppression of the Syrian people. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague called Assad's speech "beyond hypocritical."

The theater in Damascus was packed with Assad's supporters, who interrupted the speech with applause, cheers and occasional fist-waving chants, including "God, Bashar and Syria!"

The overtures Assad offered -- a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution -- were similar to symbolic changes and concessions offered previously in the uprising that began in March 2011. Those were rejected at the time as too little, too late.

Last year, the government adopted a constitution that theoretically allows political parties to compete with Assad's ruling Baath Party. Then it carried out parliamentary elections that his opponents boycotted.

Assad demanded that regional and Western countries must stop funding and arming the rebels trying to overthrow him.

"We never rejected a political solution . . . but with whom should we talk? With those who have an extremist ideology, who only understand the language of terrorism? Or should we negotiate with puppets whom the West brought?" he asked.

"We negotiate with the master, not with the slave," he answered himself.

As in previous speeches and interviews, he clung to the view that the crisis was a foreign-backed plot and not an uprising against him and his family's decades-long rule.

"Is this a revolution and are these revolutionaries? By God, I say they are a bunch of criminals," he said.

He stressed the presence of religious extremists among those fighting in Syria, calling them "terrorists who carry the ideology of al-Qaida" and "servants who know nothing but the language of slaughter." He said the fighters sought to transform the country into a "jihad land."

Although he put up a defiant front, Assad laid out the grim reality of the violence, and he spoke in front of a collage of photos of what appeared to be Syrians killed in the fighting.

"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," Assad said, "a war that targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. It is a war to defend the nation."

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