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Syrian president lashes out in hardline speech against 'terrorist' enemies

SYRIA’S embattled President Bashar al-Assad has taken a confrontational stance in a televised speech, vowing to strike "terrorists with an iron fist" and offering no hint of compromise with forces ranged against him.

In his first address since June, Mr Assad engaged only marginally with accusations leveled against his regime of human rights abuses and massacres of activists.

He denied that he had ordered soldiers to fire on civilians, though he admitted they had been authorised to use force in certain circumstances.

He promised, as he has done since the uprising against his rule began in March, that there would be reforms to a more "inclusive" politics, promising a referendum on constitutional change in March.

But other than that he struck an uncompromising line, saying he would not give in to the "mongrels" who were trying to bring down the state.

"Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron fist," he said. "We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

Mr Assad's words offered no opening for talks with the main opposition groupings, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), though it has said that his departure from office is a prerequisite anyway.

Louay Safi, an SNC spokesman, told Al-Jazeera that Mr Assad had shown himself to be "in denial". "He really just blamed the opposition for what is happening," he said. "He forgot that the protesters were there because of the demands for reform he is denying."

Mr Assad's personal response to the protests which began in March has been very different in style to that of the more flamboyant Col Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. He has kept a low profile, giving just a handful of interviews and speeches, in which he maintained his calm, gently smiling demeanour.

But the substance of his speeches has come to mirror that of the late Libyan leader's, insisting that his regime is overwhelmingly popular for success at home and resistance to the West. He has similarly vowed to overcome a foreign-funded, media-backed assault on the country's sovereignty. "We will declare victory soon," he said.

He made no mention of individual allegations even by Arab League observers of abuses. Instead, he seemed to suggest that the current Arab League monitoring mission was part of the international conspiracy against Syria.

"After they failed at the Security Council, because they failed to convince the world of their lies, they had to create an Arab platform to promote their lies," he said.

He made an implicit call on China and Russia, whose Security Council veto has so far prevented any United Nations action against Syria, to stand by him, saying that though the West was "important", it was not the only "oxygen".

More than 6,000 people have died, mainly protesters but also including soldiers and forces who have defected to set up the Free Syrian Army since the uprising started. The rate of killing has increased since November, though the Arab League on Sunday claimed that it had been reduced by the presence over the last two weeks of its monitors.