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Syria's Assad rejects dialogue with 'puppet' opposition

Jan. 6, 2013 1:03 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 8, 2013 6:07 P.M.)
BEIRUT (Reuters) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad announced what he described as a peace plan on Sunday, calling for a reconciliation conference with "those who have not betrayed Syria", to be followed by the formation of a new government and an amnesty.

Appearing in an opera house in central Damascus packed with cheering supporters, the Syrian leader delivered his first speech to an audience since June last year, and his first public comments since a television interview in November.

"The first stage of a political solution would require that regional powers stop funding and arming (the opposition), an end to terrorist operations and controlling the borders," he said.

"We will not have dialogue with a puppet made by the West," he said, calling for a "full national mobilization" to fight against rebels he described as al-Qaida terrorists.

He 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, O 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. "This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation."

"We meet today and suffering is overwhelming Syrian land. There is no place for joy while security and stability are absent on the streets of our country," Assad said. "The nation is for all and we all must protect it."

Syria's opposition rejected the proposed peace initiative, saying it was aimed at wrecking diplomatic efforts to end the civil war.

"Assad simply wanted, with the initiative he proposed, to cut the road to reaching a political solution that may result from the forthcoming American-Russian meeting with (UN mediator Lakhdar) Brahimi, which the opposition would not accept unless he and his regime leave," National Coalition spokesman Walid Bunni told Reuters.

The United Nations says 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war in Syria, which has brought fighting to the edge of the capital.

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