Syria's Assad blames 'foreign conspiracy'

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Syrian President Bashar al-AssadSyrian President Bashar al-Assad has blamed a foreign conspiracy for trying to destabilise Syria.

He said the "external conspiracy is clear to everybody", as protests continue against his rule.

In his first public remarks for months, he said: "Regional and international sides have tried to destabilise the country."

The UN said last month that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed since protests began in March last year.

President Assad's crackdown on the unrest has led to international condemnation and sanctions.

A team of 165 monitors from the Arab League has been in Syria since December to monitor implementation of a peace plan that calls for an end to all violence, the removal of heavy weapons from cities and the release of all political prisoners.

Opposition groups have accused the Arab League mission of serving to cover up the crackdown on the protests, which has continued in the presence of the observers.

In his speech, broadcast nationally from Damascus University, Mr Assad said that there were no orders for security forces to fire on protesters.

"There is no cover for anyone. There are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen," he said.

The government says it is fighting armed groups, and that about 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed so far.

In recent months army deserters have joined the opposition and targeted government forces.

'No snap reforms'

Criticising the regional grouping - which suspended Syria in November and imposed sanctions - Mr Assad said: "We were surprised Arabs did not stand with Syria".

He said Arab countries that opposed Syria were under outside pressure which was undermining their sovereignty.

But, he added, Syria would not "close its doors" to an Arab solution as long as "it respects Syria's sovereignty".

Mr Assad described the events of the past 10 months as regretful and said they had been a serious test for Syria.

However he ruled out snap reform in response to the unrest.

"We should link what happened before the crisis and post crisis and then embark on reform... We shouldn't build our reforms on this crisis," he said.

There were no obstacles to a multi-party system, he said, adding that it was a question of time.

A referendum on a new constitution could be held in March, he said, paving the way for elections in May or June.

(BBC news)