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Syria slams Clinton comments; 'national dialogue' ends

From Arwa Damon and Nada Husseini, CNN
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Clinton: 'Assad has lost legitimacy'
  • NEW: Syrian ambassador to U.N. says accounts of attack exaggerated
  • "National dialogue" conference ends
  • Syria criticizes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
  • Clinton says al-Assad has "lost legitimacy"

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- The embattled Syrian government lashed out Tuesday at U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her criticism of Bashar al-Assad's regime and hailed the political leadership's initiative to pursue reforms, one of which is the just-completed "national dialogue" meeting.

Quoting an official Syrian source, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency Tuesday upbraided Clinton, who had criticized Syrian authorities Monday for not protecting the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus, which were attacked by demonstrators.

Clinton said President al-Assad "has lost legitimacy" and wants to deflect attention from the government's four-month crackdown on peaceful protesters.

The Syrian source called the comments "additional evidence of the flagrant U.S. interference in Syrian domestic affairs." There has been criticism of U.S. officials since last week, when U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited the city of Hama and met protesters there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that about 1,400 civilians and 350 security and military forces have died since the unrest began.

The issue emerged Tuesday at the United Nations, where U.N. Security Council President Peter Wittig, of Germany, condemned the attacks and urged Syrian authorities to protect diplomatic property and personnel.

Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Ja'afari said the United States and France have exaggerated the facts about the attacks.

"Describing what happened in Damascus as mobs' attacks is very indicative of the real intentions of these two countries against my government," he told reporters.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the embassy was reopened Tuesday, the Syrian Foreign Ministry returned the American flag that had been taken down Monday from the U.S. Embassy, and embassy officials had returned to the Syrian government the Syrian flag that had been left on the embassy gates.

"So, things are improving on that front, and we do think that there's better attention now to our security," she said, adding that Syrian law enforcement arrested some six people.

As for Clinton, she insisted that Syria meet its "international obligations immediately" to safeguard diplomats and property, hours after U.S. officials say that hundreds descended on its embassy for the third time in four days, scaling its walls and inflicting damage.

While not calling for al-Assad's ouster, Clinton condemned his government and stressed that he is "not indispensable." She said his regime "will not succeed in deflecting attention" from the violence.

"From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy, he has failed to deliver on the promises he's made," she said Monday.

Shaaban Bouthaina, an adviser to al-Assad, said Clinton's criticism was out of line. "I would like to say to the secretary of state it is not herself who gives legitimacy to President Bashar al-Assad," she told CNNI on Tuesday. "It is the people of Syria, and I think they should give up this imperial attitude of saying who is legitimate and who is not legitimate."

The United States, as the world's largest democracy, should support Syria's peaceful transition to democracy "rather than to support no dialogue and to support armed elements and people who obstruct roads and kill people on the streets."

Despite reports to the contrary from witnesses and human rights groups, the government insists it is not behind the violence that has wracked the nation since widespread demonstrations erupted, blaming the problems on armed groups.

The government-backed "national dialogue" conference, which started Sunday at the Sahara Hotel complex in Damascus and ended Tuesday, is among the reforms the government has said it is seeking to bring about.

The government said the dialogue was designed to take into account viewpoints of a cross-section -- not only of al-Assad's loyalists, but also those wanting real change.

Many activists boycotted the meeting, calling its stated mission to address calls for reform a farce, given their claims that the government behind it has violently targeted hundreds who have openly made such demands since mid-March.

A result of the conference is a plan to establish a committee that will look into redrafting the constitution and laws involving political parties, media and elections.

A statement issued at the end of the meeting addressed a range of principles. It said dialogue and forgiveness are key to ending the crisis and the voices and demands of Syrian youth should be heard.

It also called for political prisoners to be freed along with "prisoners of opinion who have not been released in amnesty decrees and haven't committed crimes punishable by law."

Freedom of expression should not be violated and should be respected under the constitution, it said. Human rights should be respected as well, and a suggestion was made to establish a "higher council for human rights."

The statement said Syria is a state for everyone, national opposition is an integral part of the country, and voting should be the base for "political representation."

The dialogue stressed the importance of the rule of law and said that no one suspected of crime should avoid accountability.

It called for respect of the state and rejected any foreign intervention into affairs of the state. The statement also declared that the "liberation of the Golan" is "one of the aims that represents national consensus." Israel took the Golan Heights in the 1967 war.

The State Department's Nuland offered this recipe for a successful dialogue: "What we would say back to the Syrian government is: End the violence. End the political imprisonments. End the torture. Pull your forces back. And then maybe you will get a better response from your people in terms of joining in this dialogue."

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