Assad compares Syria crackdown to surgeons saving patients' lives

Syrian president denied responsibility for the Houla massacre in his first public address for five months

Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, defended his government's bloody crackdown on dissent, comparing his security forces – who have been repeatedly accused of torture and mass killing – to surgeons working to save the life of their patients.

Speaking before a newly selected parliament, Assad, a London-trained ophthalmologist, said: "When a surgeon ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood? Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

In his first public address for five months, Assad denied responsibility for the Houla massacre in which more than 100 civilians died – almost half of them children - and most killed at close range with guns and knives. "Not even monsters would carry out [the crimes] that we have seen," he said.

Assad's comments contradicted the accounts of many witnesses and survivors, including a defecting air force officer, Major Jihad Raslan, who told the Observer the killings were carried out by a regime-controlled militia, the shabiha. UN investigators say there are indications that the shabiha carried out at least some of the killings on 25 and 26 May, while the UN security council rebuked the Syrian government for using heavy artillery in civilian areas.

In his hour-long speech, Assad said: "If we don't feel the pain, the pain that squeezes our hearts, as I felt it, for the cruel scenes – especially the children – then we are not human beings ... The Arabic language, the human language, cannot describe the scenes we witnessed at Houla."

He presented the 15-month long insurrection in Syria as "foreign meddling" aimed at crushing Syria because of its "resistance" to Israel and the west.

"This is about Syria's role, its militant role, Syria's support for resistance. They want to attack this role, they want to crush it, and they want to divide this nation," Assad said.

He said his country was facing a "real war," and while he said his government remained open to dialogue, he warned he would not be lenient with the "terrorists" he blamed for the unrest. "We have to fight terrorism for the country to heal. We will not be lenient. We will be forgiving only for those who renounce terrorism."

Lebanon sent troops to Tripoli in an effort to prevent bloodshed spilling over its borders, after clashes between Sunnis and pro-Assad Allawites in the port city's outskirts killed 10 on Saturday.

"The Lebanese army and internal security forces need to take all measures to stop the clashes in the city of Tripoli, without discrimination," the prime minister Najib Mikati said in a statement.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, condemned the Assad government's "vicious and systematic attacks". She said: she would meet in Turkey on Wednesday with neighbours of Syria who are "anxious about what is happening." : "We could see a full-fledged civil war with consequences that would bring in the rest of the region in ways that could be quite dangerous and are certainly unpredictable."

The UN special envoy, Kofi Annan, has expressed fears that if the killing cannot be brought under control, it would trigger a conflagration in a region criss-crossed with ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Western capitals expelled Syrian diplomats after the Houla massacre, deepening the country's isolation. But Damascus continues to receive backing from Russia and China, which both voted against a resolution passed by the UN human rights council in Geneva on Friday condemning the Assad regime for the massacre and calling for a full UN investigation to gather evidence for possible criminal prosecution.

The international criminal court in The Hague is unable to begin an investigation into the killing without a mandate from the UN security council.

Russia and China have also vetoed UN sanctions against Damascus, and Moscow has continued to supply arms to the regime. Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps has also admitted having troops inside Syria, bolstering Assad government forces.

Annan has called on Damascus to take the lead in implementing a six-point UN peace plan which calls on a ceasefire by both government and insurgents. In his speech, Assad did not refer to the plan, saying he was focusing on the internal aspects of the crisis.

However he claimed: "The crisis is not internal. Rather it is a foreign war with internal tools and everybody is responsible for defending the homeland."


Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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