Smiling Assad vilifies ‘conspirators’

French journalist among latest deaths – Arab League monitor quits in disgust, dismisses mission as ‘farce.’

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
January 12, 2012 02:26
Syria's President Bashar Assad speaks in Damascus

Assad making speech 311 (r). (photo credit: REUTERS/Syrian TV)

 
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Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Wednesday to vanquish “foreign conspirators” plotting to end his rule, and a Frenchman became the first foreign journalist to be killed in the 10 months of unrest that has cost thousands of lives in Syria.

“France 2 television has just learned with a great deal of sorrow [about] the death of reporter Gilles Jacquier in Homs,” the television station said, adding it did not have details of how he had died.

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Jacquier had been invited to Syria by the government, it said.

Syrian state television said eight other people had also been killed in the incident, which it blamed on a “terrorist group.” The country barred most foreign media soon after anti-Assad protests began in March, but more journalists have been admitted since the Arab League sent monitors to check if authorities were complying with an Arab plan to halt the bloodshed.

“Gilles Jacquier was just doing his job [as a] journalist, by covering the violent events in Syria resulting from the regime’s unacceptable repression of the population,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

Earlier, a smiling Assad, in a dark jacket and open-necked shirt, greeted thousands of rapturous supporters in a Damascus square, only a day after breaking a six-month public silence.

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The crowd shouted “Shabiha forever,” a reference to loyalist militiamen, mostly members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their part in suppressing protests against the president.

Assad’s wife Asma and their two children joined him for his surprise appearance in the capital’s central Umayyad Square.

“I belong to this street,” said Assad, 46, adding that Syria faced foreign conspirators. “We will make this phase the end for them and their plans.

We are going to win without any doubt.” His remarks followed a 100-minute speech on Tuesday in which he mocked the Arab League, vowed to hit “terrorists” with an iron fist and promised reforms, but with no hint that he would relinquish the power he inherited from his father in 2000.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed Assad’s speech and said the Arab League monitoring mission needed to conclude at some point.

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“Instead of taking responsibility, what we hear from President Assad in his chillingly cynical speech yesterday was only making excuses, blaming foreign countries, conspiracies,” she said during a news conference with Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.

“I think it’s clear to both the prime minister and myself that the monitoring mission should not continue indefinitely. We cannot permit Assad and his regime to have impunity,” Clinton said, adding that the United States and its Arab allies would await the final report on the monitoring mission when its mandate concludes on January 19.

Al-Thani, who also serves as the Gulf state’s foreign minister, said doubts were growing about the effectiveness of the monitors. “I could not see up until now a successful mission, frankly speaking,” he said, adding that the final report could help guide the next steps in dealing with the crisis.

“This report will be very important for us to make the right judgment,” he said. “We hope we solve it, as we say, in the House of the Arabs but right now the Syrian government is not helping us.” Clinton’s comments followed a decision by the Arab League to delay sending more monitors to Syria after this week’s attack on an observer team in the port city of Latakia in which 11 observers were lightly injured.

In his speech Tuesday, Assad scorned the Arab League for trying to discipline Syria, saying it had “failed for six decades to take a position in the Arab interest” and that “the Arab League without Syria suspends its own Arab identity.”

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to halt its crackdown on the protests, sent an observer mission in December that has not stopped the bloodletting. The Cairo-based bloc urged Syria this week to protect its observers.

The mission ran into more trouble Wednesday when one monitor accused Syria of war crimes, saying the mission was a “farce,” a day after the US ambassador to the United Nations said a UN official had told the Security Council that the killings had accelerated since the monitors arrived.

The monitor, Anwar Malek, said he had resigned because the mission was powerless to prevent what he said were the “scenes of horror” he had seen in the restive city of Homs.

“The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled,” the Algerian told Al Jazeera English television.

“The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime.”

“The regime isn’t committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people,” he said.

There was no immediate comment on Malek’s remarks from the Arab League. Under the Arab peace plan, Syrian authorities are supposed to stop attacking peaceful protesters, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and initiate a political dialogue.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people had been killed Wednesday in Kafr Nabouda, Hama province, where troops staging raids fought army deserters. The group put Tuesday’s civilian death toll at 27, including 15 in the city of Deir al-Zor and 10 in Homs, plus four army defectors.

The United Nations has said more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in unrest that erupted in March.

Washington’s UN envoy, Susan Rice, said a UN official told the Security Council on Tuesday that about 400 people had been killed since the Arab monitors began work on December 26, which she said was a much higher daily toll than before they arrived.

“That is a clear indication that the government of Syria, rather than using the opportunity...to end the violence and fulfill all of its commitments, is instead stepping up the violence,” she said.

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