3 Jun 2012

Assad condemns Houla massacre

Syria’s President Assad condemns last Sunday’s massacre in Houla, describing it as an ‘abominable act, but offers no specific response to international envoy Kofi Annan’s call to end the conflict.

President Assad and his wife Asma

In a rare public appearance, coming a day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the spectre of all-out civil war in Syria was growing rapidly, Mr Assad said that even monsters could not carry out such acts as those committed at Houla.

He also promised the 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

In a speech to parliament Assad repeated many of his earlier pledges to maintain a crackdown on opponents he describes as terrorists implementing a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with those opposition figures who have avoided armed conflict or outside backing.

Mr Assad said that his country is facing “a war waged from outside the country”. He added: “What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism,” Assad said in a speech to parliament, broadcast on Syrian television.

“The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside,” Assad said.

Assad has made few public appearances during a 15-month uprising against his rule and this speech follows comments from Kofi Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria about the escalating crisis.

Mr Annan told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that the world needed to see action, not words, from the Syrian leader.

Assad “must make bold and visible steps immediately to radically change his military posture and honour his commitment to withdraw heavy weapons and cease all violence,” Annan said.

“What is important is not the words he uses but the action he takes – now,” Annan said.

Mr Assad said authorities would maintain a crackdown against the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.

The state will not take revenge. President Assad

“We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return,” Assad told parliament. “I urge all those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge.”

Authorities were prepared to hold dialogue with political opponents who did not have outside backing “or have not participated in terrorism,” he added.

The speech comes as reports emerge of shelling in Houla, the town where more than 100 men women and children were murdered a week ago today.

Channel 4 News’s chief correspondent Alex Thomson, who is just outside the town, has reported that five shells have hit Houla in a ten minute period.

In his hour-long address, Mr Assad offered no specific response to Annan’s plea for bold steps to end the conflict.

The United Nations has said Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in a crackdown on protests against Assad which have become increasingly militarised. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Assad’s speech on Sunday was due to be delivered to the opening session of a new parliament, elected last month under a new constitution that authorities have portrayed as a move towards multi-party politics.