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June 20th, 2011
07:15 PM ET

Syrian president's promises met with skepticism abroad

(CNN) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offered vague promises of reform and clear threats against protesters Monday as he addressed his nation and the rest of the world, whose leaders called for swift changes, some saying he had passed the point of no return.

Months of protests have left more than 1,100 dead, according to human rights activists. But the extent of the carnage is not clear. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week that nearly 1,300 Syrians had been killed and thousands more jailed since protests began.

The Syrian leader said he was "working on getting the military back to their barracks as soon as possible," but also warned the government would "work on tracking down everyone who shed blood or plotted in shedding the blood of the Syrian people, and we will hold them accountable."

He raised the possibility of amending the country's constitution and referred to the need for a "national dialogue," but made clear his government would not engage in one-on-one talks with the opposition.

"It is not a dialogue of the opposition with the government ... but it should be a dialogue that will include all fabrics of the Syrian society," he said in the speech, his third to the country in three months.

Al-Assad blamed armed gangs and conspiracies for the violence that has gripped the country, saying the unrest has tarnished the country's image and weakened its security.

"There are some who are distorting the image of the Syrian nation abroad, and they wanted to open the gates and even called for foreign intervention. They tried to weaken the national political position," he said in the speech to an enthusiastic audience at Damascus University.

"There are those who are killing in the name of religion and want to spread chaos under the pretext of religion," he said, referring to conspiracies as "germs" that cannot be "exterminated."

The speech was met with demonstrations in a number of Syrian towns and cities, opponents of the government said.

Videos posted on YouTube suggested there were protests in Damascus, Hama, Homs and other cities.

It was not possible to confirm when or where the scenes were filmed, but one showed a sign reading, "If we are all germs, are you the head of all germs?"

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Filed under: 360° Radar • 360º Follow • Middle East
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