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."
As the French and German foreign ministers arrived in Switzerland on Saturday to join talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Western and Iranian officials familiar with the negotiations cautioned that they could still fail.
The spokesman said that no Sudanese plane has come under fire since the beginning of the anti-Houthi campaign on Wednesday.
Deaths have been reported at Aden where witnesses have reported explosions at Adens largest arms depot
Syrian state television said the army was engaged in fierce fighting and have managed to halt the insurgents advances on the northern, eastern and southern sides of the city.
Merouane Ghalmi made subject to 'peace bond' over police concerns of possible future crimes, despite not being charged with any offense.
Egypts Sisi has said that he backs calls for a unified Arab force to defend Arab countries.
Raids target Houthi strongholds across country while ground fighting reported in the southern city of Aden.
The source said the staff, numbering more than 100, were heading to the airport and were expected to relocate to several countries including Jordan.
The two Czech women were kidnapped two years ago by an al-Qaeda linked group in Pakistan
Council reaffirms commitment to fight Daesh in Libya while keeping four years of arms embargo in place.
The ad’s sponsor, political blogger Pamela Geller, said on Friday she was pleased by a ruling by Philadelphia District Court Judge Mitchell Goldberg that a rejection of the ads would violate her First Amendment right of free speech.
Hundreds of demobilized child soldiers still need education, rehabilitation
The Philippines said on Thursday it would resume repair and reconstruction works in the disputed South China Sea.
Pakistan army fights off attack by dozens of fighters in Khyber Agency region, according to military agency.
The Saudi navy has evacuated 86 Saudi, Arab and Western diplomats from the southern Yemeni port city Aden, reported Al Arabiya News Channel on Saturday.
Yemen's Houthi rebels on Saturday claimed to have shot down a warplane from a Saudi-led coalition and captured its pilot during a bombing mission in the capital Sana'a.