NEW: Wednesday's death toll in Syria reported at 25
Bashar al-Assad appears at a demonstration
Slain journalist won an award for a documentary on the Tunisian revolution
As violence erupted in Homs, Syria’s president turned up at a boisterous pro-government rally in Damascus Wednesday, whipping up his followers and again underscoring his view that the months of popular unrest in his nation are the result of a “conspiracy.”
“We will triumph over this conspiracy,” Bashar al-Assad told a cheering, clapping and flag-waving throng.
“I will not say that the country is confronting a major conspiracy because you are here to stand up against it,” he said. “These are the final phases of the conspiracy, and we will make sure that we will stand up victorious.”
Al-Assad’s appearance at the rally comes a day after he delivered a defiant televised speech, strongly defending his government’s reforms and blaming the unrest on “external conspiracies.”
Meanwhile, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, an opposition activist group, said in a statement that 25 people were killed in unrest Wednesday – seven in Hama, 12 in Homs, two each in Idlib and Haleb and one each in Latakia and Deir Ezzor.
The government blamed an “armed terrorist group” for a mortar attack it said killed an award-winning French journalist and eight Syrians in the strife-torn city of Homs.
Gilles Jacquier of the France 2 TV network died when a mortar shell struck the pro-government rally he was attending as part of a government-authorized tour of Homs, the network said. He is the first Western journalist to die in the 10-month-old uprising in Syria.
Wednesday’s rally in Damascus occurred during an Arab League fact-finding mission to see if the Syrian government is adhering to an agreement to end the violence.
Al-Assad made the appearance amid widespread grass-roots and international anger over his government’s crackdown against peaceful protesters. The crackdown has continued despite the presence of Arab League observers and international pressure, with opposition activists estimating the number of deat at 6,000-plus.
Four members of the Syrian army were killed when a bomb exploded in a military bus Wednesday, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said. Eight others were injured in the explosion in the Damascus countryside, according to SANA. It blamed the attack on an “armed terrorist group.”
Opposition groups blame the violence on al-Assad’s government, but the president continues to blame the bloodshed on terrorists.
Al-Assad – who rarely makes public appearances – caused quite a stir when he showed up at Wednesday’s rally. A news anchor said his presence “caught us off guard, quite surprising.”
Standing next to Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, the president lauded his supporters.
“I came here so we can put our hands together, to build the great Syria that we love, that we believe in. Together, we will work together and walk forward with the reforms,” al-Assad said.
He said he wanted to “shake hands” with everyone in the crowd and in every city in Syria. He made reference to the fact that he has been criticized for not talking directly to the people.
“I wanted to be with you so I can have the power from you, because of you, in confronting these obstacles ahead of us. I salute you as you come here for support, coming from your mosques, your churches, to support your great nation, your military, your institutions,” he said.
The Arab League has called on Damascus to stop 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 both al-Assad supporters and anti-government activists.
Anwar Malek, an Algerian Arab League observer who withdrew from the monitoring team, told Al-Jazeera he quit because he found himself “serving the regime, and not part of an independent monitoring body. “
He said the mission is providing the “regime cover for more killing.” Malek said he spent 15 days in the restive city of Homs and saw “shameful scenes,” finding people in detention facilities in a “deplorable and tragic state.”
CNN’s Saad Abedine and Joe Sterling and Journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report