Assad vows victory, Syria accused of war crimes

BEIRUT  - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Wednesday to vanquish "foreign conspirators" plotting to end his rule, and an Arab League observer quit Syria, accusing the authorities of committing war crimes.
In the latest violence, a Western journalist was among eight people killed in the restive city of Homs, Syria's Addounia television said, adding that 25 people had been wounded.
It said the dead journalist worked for France 2 television and that the wounded one was Dutch.
The death would be the first of a foreign reporter in Syria in 10 months of unrest. Most foreign media were barred from the country for much of that time.
A witness in Homs, who asked not to be named, said the casualties were caused by rocket-propelled grenades fired during a pro-Assad rally. He said he had seen three bodies. A smiling Assad, in a dark jacket and open-necked shirt, greeted thousands of rapturous supporters in a Damascus square, only a day after breaking a six-month public silence.
The crowd shouted "Shabiha forever, for your eyes, Assad," a reference to loyalist militiamen, mostly members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, who have gained a fearsome reputation for their part in suppressing protests against the president.
Assad's wife Asma and their two children joined him for his surprise appearance in the capital's central Umayyad Square. "I belong to this street," Assad, 46, said, adding Syria faced foreign conspirators. "We will make this phase the end for them and their plans. We are going to win without any doubt." His remarks followed a 100-minute speech on Tuesday in which he mocked the Arab League, vowed to hit "terrorists" with an iron fist and promised reforms, but with no hint that he would relinquish the power he inherited from his father in 2000.
The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to halt its crackdown on protests, sent an observer mission in December that has not stopped the bloodletting. It urged Syria this week to protect its observers.
The mission hit more trouble after one monitor accused Syria of war crimes saying the mission was a "farce," and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on Tuesday a U.N. official had told the Security Council the killings had gathered pace since the monitors arrived.
In his speech the same day, Assad had scorned the Arab League for trying to discipline Syria, saying it had "failed for six decades to take a position in the Arab interest" and that "the Arab League without Syria suspends its own Arab identity."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four people had been killed in Kafr Nabouda, in Hama province, where troops staging raids fought army deserters. The British-based group put Tuesday's civilian death toll at 27, including 15 in the city of Deir al-Zor and 10 in Homs, plus four army defectors.
The Arab League monitor, Anwar Malek, said he had resigned because the mission was powerless to prevent what he said were the "scenes of horror" he had seen in the restive city of Homs.
"The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled," the Algerian told Al Jazeera English television. "The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime ...
"The regime isn't committing one war crime but a series of crimes against its people," he added.
Malek's resignation was the latest blow to a mission already criticized for inefficiency and whose members have come under attack this week from both Assad supporters and protesters.
Syria has barred most independent media, making it difficult to verify conflicting accounts of events on the ground.
There was no immediate comment on Malek's remarks from the Arab League, which decided on Sunday to keep monitors in place at least until they report again on their mission on January 19.
Under the Arab peace plan, Syrian authorities are supposed to stop attacking peaceful protests, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and open a political dialogue.
The United Nations has said more than 5,000 civilians have been killed in unrest that erupted in March, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, while the authorities accuse armed Islamist militants of killing 2,000 members of the security forces.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said a U.N. official had told the Security Council that about 400 people had been killed since the Arab monitors began work on December 26, which she said was a much higher daily toll than before they arrived.
Rice was speaking after Lynn Pascoe, U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, briefed the 15-nation Security Council behind closed doors on Syria and other major crises. She said the figure did not include more than two dozen people killed in a suicide bombing in Damascus last week.
"That is a clear indication that the government of Syria, rather than using the opportunity ... to end the violence and fulfill all of its commitments (to the Arab League), is instead stepping up the violence," she said.
Assad's stance, casting the unrest as a foreign conspiracy and countering it with violent repression and hazy promises of reform, resembles that of other Arab leaders confronted by mass protests in the past year. Three of them have been toppled.
Until three deadly bombings in Damascus in the past three weeks, the Syrian capital had remained relatively peaceful.
But residents now say fear has spread through the city, emptying normally bustling streets and crowded cafes and leaving a ghost town at night as people hurry home.
"People have stopped buying. Days can pass without even one client," said the owner of a clothes shop in Hamra Street, in the heart of the capital. "After the explosions we are closing down early, we do not know when this street will be targeted."


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