DAMASCUS: President Bashar Al-Assad made a rare public appearance vowing to defeat a "conspiracy" against Syria on Wednesday, a day after he blamed foreign interests for stoking months of deadly violence.
"Without a doubt we will defeat the conspiracy, which is nearing its end and will also be the end for (the conspirators) and their plans," Assad told tens of thousands of cheering supporters in the capital’s central Omayyad Square.
Casually dressed in a jacket and open-necked shirt, a confident-looking Assad stood at the edge of the throng, security guards in front of him, and said: "I came here to draw from your strength. Thanks to you, I have never felt weak."
In a speech on Tuesday, his first public appearance in months, Assad vowed to crush "terrorism" with an iron fist.
"Regional and international parties who are trying to destabilize Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events," the embattled leader said in the nearly two-hour speech.
That prompted opposition movements to accuse him of pushing the country toward civil war and world powers to accuse him of trying to shift the blame for the 10 months of bloodletting in the protests against his regime.
Amid the finger-pointing, activists said four civilians were killed on Wednesday near the central city of Hama and that loyalist troops were clashing with deserters.
Assad denied on Tuesday that security forces had orders to fire on civilian protesters and said the unrest would only end "when the flow of funds and weapons coming from abroad stops".
He said restoring security was the "absolute priority" and pledged to tackle terrorism with an "iron fist," after a Damascus suicide bombing killed 26 people on Friday.
Washington said Assad had used the speech to try to deflect the attention of his people from the fact that he had committed himself to end the violence.
"He’s doing everything but what he needs to do," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
She said Assad must meet Syria’s commitments to the Arab League to end the violence, withdraw heavy weapons from cities, admit journalists, free political prisoners and allow for real political dialogue.
"So that’s what we’re looking to see in Syria, and obviously this was an effort to deflect the attention of his own people from the real problem."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Assad was "divorced from reality" and accused him of inciting violence, while vigorously condemning attacks on Arab League observers in Syria.
In New York, UN Assistant Secretary General B. Lynn Pascoe told the Security Council that 400 people had been killed since Arab League observers began their work on December 26 to assess Assad’s implementation of the peace deal.
US Ambassador Susan Rice said the daily death rate was higher than before the Arab deployment and reaffirmed calls for the council to pass a resolution condemning the crackdown.
She said Syria’s government was "willingly, blatantly and in cold blood, massacring its own people" and reaffirmed the US administration’s calls for Assad to stand down.
In Istanbul, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, expressed alarm about Assad’s "dangerous speech in which he stated his determination to use violence against our own people".
"He has cut short any Arab or other initiative to find a solution to the crisis," Ghalioun said, adding the speech showed Assad’s "determination to divide and push the country towards civil war".
Ghalioun called on the world community to "work to ensure the international protection of Syrian civilians," while urging the Arab League to turn to the Security Council for help.
The Local Coordination Committees, which organize protests, said Assad’s speech proved he was ordering killings, given that he instructed security forces to "continue to beat the activists with ‘an iron fist.’"
Assad insisted security personnel had no orders to shoot. "By law, nobody can open fire, except in self-defense," he said.
The president said a new constitution being drawn up by a committee set up in October to replace the current one, which enshrines his Baath party’s dominant role, could be put to a popular vote as early as March.
As the violence continued apace and economic hardship spreads, a group of Syrian expatriates and foreign activists announced plans to cross into Syria on Thursday with a humanitarian convoy.
"Our aim is … to deliver humanitarian aid to the families in the afflicted areas that suffer from daily brutal bombing and totally unacceptable living conditions," said a statement posted on the website of the group called "Freedom Convoy".
In addition to the four civilians killed near Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said regime forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse students demonstrating in Daraya, in Damascus province.