Syrian President Assad Gives Live TV Address

Syria's president has blamed Islamic extremists and "outside forces" for orchestrating the conflict in his country in a rare public address to the nation.

The embattled leader, who appeared before cheering crowds at an opera house in the capital Damascus, struck a defiant tone and was frequently interrupted by supporters chanting: "With our soul with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you O Bashar."

With insurgents fighting their way closer to the seat of his power, President Bashar al Assad spoke about the latest developments and "suffering" in Syria.

He said the conflict was not between the state and opposition, but the "nation and its enemies".

"We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word," he said.

"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.

"The nation is for all, and we must all protect it," he said to rapturous applause inside a packed House of Arts and Culture.

"There are those who seek to partition Syria and weaken it. But Syria is stronger ... and will remain sovereign ... and this is what upsets the West."

Mr Assad called for a "full national mobilisation" to fight against the rebels, whom he branded al Qaeda "terrorists" and "murderous criminals".

While outlining proposals for what he described as a peace plan including a new constitution and amnesty, there was no suggestion of him relinquishing his power.

He asserted the government and army would continue military operations against opposition groups.

Mr Assad said change must come through constitutional means and appealed for dialogue once the fighting had ended.

"Regional and international countries must stop funding the armed men to allow those displaced to return to their homes ... right after that our military operations will cease," he said.

"We will not have dialogue with a puppet made by the West."

They were his first public comments since he dismissed suggestions that he might go into exile to end the civil war, telling Russian television in November that he would "live and die" in Syria.

The United Sates dismissed Mr Assad's remarks as "detatched from reality".

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the speech was "yet another attempt by the regime to cling to power and does nothing to advance the Syrian people's goal of a political transition". 

According to Sky sources, the internet in Damascus was shut down during his address - at the end of which Mr Assad needed to be ushered away by security officials when he appeared to be mobbed by jubilant supporters.

The hour-long live broadcast came as fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces continued to rage across the country.

Mr Assad's appeals for a reconciliation are likely to be rejected by opposition forces and rebels, who insist he must step down.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed the calls "empty promises".

Responding to the address, he tweeted: "#AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing #Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."

The European Union called on Mr Assad to step down, while the opposition coalition in Syria rejected the address.

Sky's chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay said: "Whatever the support he had inside Damascus there, it's not reflected nationally.

"There are a huge number of people now who obviously want him to leave. As he said, they are in a midst of a very nasty war, and there is nothing to indicate, especially after this speech, that's going to change at all."

The 21-month uprising against Assad has become a civil war that the United Nations says has killed 60,000 people.

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