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Opposition calls al-Assad speech defending government 'worthless'

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:14 PM EST, Tue January 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 11 Arab League observers are slightly injured, a senior Arab League official says
  • Al-Assad says no government department was ordered to fire on people
  • The Arab League says the government is responsible for its monitors' safety
  • Tuesday's death toll is now at 38, activists say

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- Syrian opposition activists called President Bashar al-Assad's defiant and rare address Tuesday a "worthless" and "meaningless" speech.

"The regime has not learned," said Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group.

Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition activist group, said, "I heard a lot of gibberish about terrorists' conspiracies and unnamed perpetrators."

Al-Assad delivered a lengthy televised talk strongly defending his government's actions and motivations, despite world pressure on his embattled government for its 10-month crackdown on protesters. Activists say the operation has led to nearly 6,000 or more estimated deaths.

As al-Assad spoke, more violence erupted across the country, leaving 38 people dead, three of them children, according to the LCC, which organizes and documents anti-government protests.

Two hours after al-Assad's speech, in the Syrian port city of Latakia, 11 Arab League monitors suffered bruises when pro-Assad protesters assaulted them and their cars, a senior Arab League official told CNN.

News of the attack came after the Arab League's secretary-general, Nabil el-Araby, said Tuesday there had been a "campaign" against the monitoring mission in the past two days. In a statement, the Arab League said forces loyal to the government and parties considered part of the opposition have committed acts of violence that have led to monitor injuries, equipment damage, and threats of assaults.

But the league said the Syrian government is "fully responsible in protecting the members of the mission" and failing to provide "full protection" is a "serious breach" of the government's commitment.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Syria "will continue to shoulder its responsibilities of protecting the observers and preventing anyone from obstructing their work" and he denounced any action that would "hinder" the league's mission, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Syrian ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Ja'afari said the Syrian government has had no interest in undermining the Arab League mission. But he insisted that the government is not responsible for the violence. "These victims are falling in Syria because of those who are still insisting on instigating and inciting to violence," he told reporters. "The Syrian authorities have the full right and the full duty to protect lives and security and safety of the Arab envoys. So we are doing that."

In his address, al-Assad blamed the violence on "external conspiracies" and said that the international call for reform wasn't taking into account the terrorism that the country is facing. He said Syria has initiated reforms, such as lifting its emergency law, and plans to hold a constitutional referendum in March.

Al-Assad denied that he had commanded forces to fire on protesters and added that there "were no orders by any departments of the state to fire on people."

He criticized the Arab League as toothless as it pursues a fact-finding mission in Syria, part of a larger initiative to end security forces' siege on what started as peaceful protests.

"The Arab League is the reflection of the Arab situation," he said. "The Arab League is our miserable situation."

He criticized Arab nations for not standing with Syria and for coming down on it for human rights abuses.

"Their situation is like that of a doctor who tells people not to smoke while he has a cigarette in his mouth," he said.

"We have been working for years to create an office to boycott Israel," he said, "but in weeks they did it against Syria. Are they swapping Israel for Syria?"

"Did the Arab League respect its own nations whose territory has been invaded or occupied? Have they prevented separation of Sudan, or stopped Sudan famine, or stopped the death of 1 million Iraqis, or replanted any of the olive trees uprooted by Israel?"

The league has called on Damascus to halt violence against civilians, free political detainees, remove tanks and weapons from cities, and allow outsiders, including the international news media, to travel freely around Syria.

Arab League officials have pledged to add to their 165 observers already in the country. But the group's mission has been met with skepticism from Assad supporters, who view the monitors as stooges for regime change, and anti-government activists, who see the observers as weak and ineffective.

Eighteen of Tuesday's deaths took place in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where, an LCC activist told CNN, 3,000 people had gathered near a hotel where monitors for the Arab League peace mission were supposed to be.

Security forces fired at the protesters, arrested others and maintained a strong presence, the activist said, adding that the forces were shooting randomly. Many shops were closed and the streets were empty, the activist said.

Another 13 deaths occurred in Homs, three in Qamishili, three in Idlib and one in Hama, the LCC said.

The LCC's Jouejati said the regime "has failed to comply with a single requirement of the Arab League protocol that the Assad regime signed up for."

"They have not ceased killing civilians," she said. "They have pulled their troops back from residential neighborhoods. They have not allowed Arab League observers the unfettered access they committed to. They have not allowed the international media unfettered access."

The U.N. Security Council, which itself has been under pressure to act on the violence -- discussed Tuesday the sustained government crackdown. While the United Nations has not acted on sanctions against Syria, international sanctions have been imposed or threatened on the regime and several entities want the International Criminal Court to investigate Syria.

"We continue to remain rather far apart," said the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, who called for patience. "If somebody had an expectation that the Arab League monitoring mission comes there and things change overnight, those would have been unrealistic expectations."

The U.S. ambassador, Susan Rice, criticized al-Assad's comments about the Arab League mission that Syria is committed to embrace and said referring to conspiracies is an insult to Syrians.

Jouejati said in the 10 months of al-Assad's reforms there have been thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of forced disappearances and detentions.

"That's what Assad's reforms have delivered," Jouejati said.

In a separate statement, the LCC said "there are obvious indications that the regime is starting to enter its weakest stages."

"The LCC confirms that the fall of the regime will be a normal outcome of the Revolution, and therefore calls on activists to use various forms of civil resistance and widen the participation of all sectors of the Syrian people in the revolution," it said. "The LCC also looks forward to Arab and international participation in cutting off all resources that might support the regime as a means of paralyzing its repressive behavior."

CNN's Nic Robertson, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Schams Elwazar, Yousuf Basil and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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