World Bulletin / News Desk
A defiant President Bashar al-Assad presented what he described as a new initiative on Sunday to end the war in Syria but his opponents dismissed it as a ploy to cling to power.
Appearing before cheering supporters who packed the Damascus Opera House, it was his first such speech since June and first public appearance of any kind since a television interview in November.
He called for national mobilisation in a "war to defend the nation", describing rebels fighting him as terrorists and foreign agents with whom it was impossible to negotiate.
His new initiative, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude "those who have betrayed Syria", contained no concessions and appeared to recycle proposals that opponents have rejected since the uprising began nearly two years ago.
The opposition National Coalition said the speech was an attempt to thwart an international agreement, backed by Western and Arab powers, that he must stand down.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said "empty promises of reform fool no one". In a Twitter message, he added: "Death, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are of his own making."
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels would "look carefully if there is anything new in the speech, but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition".
Assad spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: "With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, Oh Bashar!"
At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: "God, Syria and Bashar is enough!" as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.
"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," Assad said in the speech, broadcast on Syrian state television. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation."
Saying that "suffering is overwhelming" the land, he added: "The nation is for all and we all must protect it."
Independent media are largely barred from Damascus.
Assad, a 47-year-old eye doctor, succeeded his late father, Hafez, in 2000. The family has ruled Syria since the elder Assad led a military coup 42 years ago.
Assad's speech seemed ostensibly aimed at showing Syrians, and perhaps diplomats, that he is open to change.
But the plan could hardly have been better designed to ensure its rejection by the opposition. Among its proposals: rebels would first be expected to halt their operations before the army would cease fire, a certain non-starter.
Assad repeatedly described parts of the opposition as agents of foreign powers who could not be included in any negotiations: "We will not have dialogue with a puppet made by the West," he said to an outburst of applause.
The opposition has consistently said it will not cease fire until the army does, and will not negotiate any transitional government unless Assad is excluded.
Diplomacy has been largely irrelevant so far in the conflict, with the United States, European powers, Arab states and Turkey all demanding Assad leave power, while Russia and Iran refuse to exclude him from talks on a future government.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has been trying to bridge the gap, meeting senior U.S. and Russian officials to discuss a peace proposal that does not explicitly mention Assad's fate.
National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters that Assad's speech was timed to try and prevent a breakthrough from those talks by taking a position intended to thwart compromise:
"The talk by Brahimi and others that there could be a type of political solution being worked out has prompted him to come out and tell the others 'I won't accept a solution'," Bunni said, adding that Assad feared any deal would mean his downfall.
"He is sensing the danger that any initiative would entail."
Giving the speech in the opera house, in a part of central Damascus that has been hit by rebel attacks, could itself be seen as a show of strength for a leader whose public appearances have grown rarer as the rebellion has gathered force.
He spoke before a giant flag, constructed of portraits of what state television described as victims of the conflict.
"We meet today, and suffering is overwhelming the land of Syria. There is no place for joy while security and stability are absent on the streets of our country," he said.
"But from the womb of pain, hope must be born."
Syrian PM says Syria wants to "flush out" militants
Greste has been released from prison and is currently at Cairo airport waiting for a plane for his native Australia, the official said
The group called for removing articles in the Yemeni constitution that contradicted with a peace and partnership agreement signed by Yemen's political forces, on one hand, and the Yemeni presidency, on the other, late in 2014.
The police said in a statement that the detained settlers' ages ranged between 14 and 17.
Visit My Mosque day is part of a national initiative by Muslims to reach out to fellow Britons following tensions around terrorism.
Palestinians have said they will have no choice but to complain about Israel to the International Criminal Court if it proceeds with controversial settlement plans.
Japanese PM called King Abdullah II of Jordan and expressed appreciation for his efforts.
Rockets fired at village near Timbuktu, one killed. Follows suicide attack in town of Tabankort.
The Israeli army also arrested 60 Palestinians from East Jerusalem, 42 from Ramallah and al-Bireh, 38 from Jenin, 35 from Nablus, 19 from Qalqilya and 19 from Bethlehem.
Hopes of de-escalation evaporated on Saturday with Ukraine's representative and separatist envoys accusing the other of sabotaging negotiations.
Protesters also demanded the release of Yemeni prisoners in Saudi prisons.
Anan Abu Saleh, 19, has been detained at a checkpoint near Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque Complex.
Six Bulgarian U.N. aid workers who were detained by rebels in Sudan's strife-torn South Kordofan region have been released, the Bulgarian foreign ministry said Sunday
Up to 13,000 march for greater democracy in first protest since last year's Umbrella Movement