Assad condemns Houla massacre


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad today condemned the "abominable" massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

In a speech to parliament Mr 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.

He made his comments a day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the spectre of all-out civil war was growing daily in Syria and the world needed to see actions, not words, from Mr Assad.In his hour-long address, Mr Assad offered no specific response to Mr Annan's plea for bold steps to end the conflict.

Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests against Mr Assad, which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarised, destabilising neighbouring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.

"This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements," Mr Assad said, looking relaxed as he spoke to parliamentarians.

"If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near."

Last month's massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria's relentless bloodshed - undimmed by Mr Annan's April 12th ceasefire deal - could engulf the Middle East.Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Mr Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi'ite

Iran and Hezbollah.Western powers have accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25th Houla killing, a charge Damascus has denied.

"What happened in Houla...and what we described as ugly and abominable massacres, or true monstrosities - even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen," Mr Assad said.

He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month's election for parliament, whose new members Mr Assad was addressing.

"We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political programme. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism," Mr Assad said.

"The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside."

Authorities will maintain a crackdown against the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents, he added.

"We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge."Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed the speech as more rhetoric.

"Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him," he told Reuters.

Mr Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must make "bold and visible" steps immediately to change his military stance and honour his commitment to cease all violence.

Mr Annan criticised Mr Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in a crackdown on protests against Assad. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Lebanese troops deployed in the city of Tripoli today after 15 people were killed in clashes between supporters and opponents Mr Assad, local medics said, the deadliest fighting in Lebanon since Syria's uprising began.

Residents said relative calm had returned to the city since the soldiers deployed at about 7am (0400 GMT), after gunmen exchanged heavy machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades.

Prime minister Najib Mikati and other Tripoli politicians instructed security forces on Saturday to use an "iron fist" to quell the worst violence to shake Tripoli since the start of an uprising against Mr Assad in neighbouring Syria.

The mainly Sunni Muslim protests against Assad have polarised Tripoli, where a small community of Alawites - from the same offshoot of Shi'ite Islam as Mr Assad - have frequently clashed with majority Sunni Muslims who support the uprising.

The latest clashes began after midnight on Friday and continued throughout yesterday until the army deployment.

Gunmen from the Jebel Mohsen district, home to Tripoli's Alawite residents, have fought intermittent skirmishes over the past few weeks with Sunni Muslim fighters in the Bab al-Tabbaneh area.Saturday's death toll was the highest in a single day in Tripoli, raising fears that Syria's unrest was spilling over into its smaller neighbour.

The Lebanese National News Agency said there was "shelling across both areas heard every five minutes, and snipers targeting civilians".

Residents said those killed included civilians caught in the crossfire and that a Lebanese soldier was among the wounded.The areas have long-standing grievances separate from the Syrian conflict but the Sunni-led uprising against Mr Assad has caused strife among Lebanon's mixed population, especially in Tripoli, 70 km (43 miles) north of Beirut.

Syria flooded Lebanon with troops early in its 1975-1990 civil war and dominated its neighbour for more than a decade afterwards. It retains significant influence over Lebanon's intelligence apparatus and military, despite having withdrawn troops in 2005.