Fighting in Syria as world slams Assad speech

BEIRUT — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday expressed disappointment with Syrian President Bashar Assad for rejecting the most important elements of an international roadmap to end the country’s civil war — a political handover and establishment of a transitional governing body.

Assad in a rare speech Sunday outlined his own vision for ending the country’s conflict with a plan that would keep him in power. He also dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition and called on Syrians to fight what he called “murderous criminals.”

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Monday the secretary-general is disappointed that Assad’s speech “does not contribute to a solution that could end the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.” Nesirky said Ban and U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will continue to work for a political transition that leads to U.N.-organized elections.

The West, including the U.S. and Britain, denounced Assad’s speech, which came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict.

On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also criticized the Syrian leader’s initiative. He accused Assad of “state terrorism” and called on him to relinquish power.

“There is one way out for Bashar and that is to respect the will of the people and do whatever is necessary,” Erdogan said at a media conference while visiting Gabon. His remarks were broadcast by Turkish state TV Monday.

The violence on the ground, meanwhile, continued unabated.

Syria’s state media said Monday that government troops repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo.

The official SANA news agency said regime forces killed and wounded members of a “terrorist group” in the fighting late Sunday, but did not provide a number. The government and the pro-regime media refer to the rebels seeking to topple Assad as terrorists.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles often raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school. Rebels have recently made gains around Aleppo, as well as in the east and in the capital Damascus, bringing the civil war closer to the seat of Assad’s power.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels clashed with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Daraya south of the capital. The Observatory said the army sent reinforcements there to join in an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few kilometers (miles) from a strategic military air base west of the capital.

Activists also reported shelling and fighting in southern Syria, as well as eastern and central Syria.

In his speech Sunday, his first public address in six months, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue — but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.” He also vowed to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left.”

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.

Syria’s opposition rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president’s departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

As expected, Assad’s proposal did get support from close Syrian ally Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said it contains “solutions” to the conflict and outlines “a comprehensive political process which guarantees the presence of all voices in power.” Salehi called on the international community to support Assad’s initiative.

“All regional and international partners should help the immediate resolution of the crisis and prevent its spread to the region,” Salehi said in a statement that was carried by the state-run IRNA news agency Monday.

Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the violence, which at times has spilled over into Syria’s neighboring countries, including Turkey.

The Dutch military on Monday shipped Patriot missiles to Turkey, a fellow NATO member, after the alliance agreed in December to deploy the anti-missile systems along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

Once a close ally of Damascus, Ankara has turned into one of the Syrian regime’s harshest critics since the uprising began. Turkey requested the missiles to boost its air defenses against possible spillover from Syria.

Violence has flared along the border in recent months, with Turkey firing artillery across the frontier to retaliate for Syrian shells hitting Turkish soil.

The two Dutch batteries are scheduled to be operational by the end of the month and will remain in Turkey for a year. They are part of a NATO contingent of Patriot missiles that intercept incoming ballistic missiles. Two U.S. and two German batteries are also being deployed to other parts of southern Turkey.

The Syria crisis began with peaceful protests in March 2011 but has since shifted into a civil war. At least 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, according to a recent U.N. estimate.

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