Syria's Assad offers road map to end conflict

President Bashar al-Assad offered a road map to end Syria's civil war in a rare speech Sunday in which he branded the opposition "slaves" of the West and told foreign powers to stop backing the rebels.

The main Syrian opposition grouping, the National Coalition, immediately rejected the plan while Britain described Assad's speech, his first in public in seven months, as "beyond hypocritical". The European Union renewed its calls for him to step aside.

Assad, speaking to wild applause from ecstatic crowds packed into a cultural centre in Damascus, outlined a plan he said was aimed at resolving the 21-month conflict which according to the UN has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

First step, he said, was for foreign powers to end their support for armed rebels seeking to topple his regime.

"Right after that, our military operations will cease," he said, adding, without elaborating, that a mechanism would be set up to monitor any such truce.

The government would then step up contacts to convene a national dialogue conference with opponents "inside and outside" the country, who do not take orders from abroad.

"We will hold dialogue with (those who are) the masters (of their decisions) not the slaves (of foreign powers)," Assad said.

The national dialogue conference would draft a charter which would then be put to a referendum. That would be followed by parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government, he said.

Any resolution of the conflict, however, had to be purely Syrian and "there must be agreement at the national dialogue conference."

"We are now faced with a state of war in every sense of the word, an external aggression more deadly and dangerous than conventional wars implemented through a handful of Syrians and many foreigners," Assad said in the live televised speech.

He said the conflict was not one between the government and the opposition but between the "nation and its enemies" saying of his opponents: "This is not a loyal opposition but a gang of killers.

"The one thing that is sure that those who we face today are those who carry the Al-Qaeda ideology," Assad said, repeating previous assertions that "foreign terrorists" are behind the uprising.

The National Coalition, which insists Assad step aside before it is willing to enter dialogue, said his speech was directed at those ready to see him remain in power.

Assad will not accept "any initiative that does not restore stability to his regime and put him at the helm of control", spokesman Walid al-Bunni told AFP by phone.

"He wants negotiating partners of his own choosing and will not accept any initiative that could meet the aspirations of the Syrian people or ultimately lead to his departure and the dismantling of his regime."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad's first speech to the nation since June was full of "empty promises" and would "fool no one".

Hague took to Twitter to vent his anger, writing: "AssadSpeech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."

In Brussels, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: "We will look carefully if there is anything new in the speech but we maintain our position that Assad has to step aside and allow for a political transition."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called on Assad to order his security forces to end their violence, rather than making "vague expressions of readiness for a ceasefire".

Assad last spoke in public on June 3 when he addressed parliament. In November, he gave an interview to Russian television in which he rejected suggestions he go into exile, saying he would "live and die" in Syria.

During his latest visit to Damascus, UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he was working on a plan that he hoped would be acceptable to all major powers that envisaged a ceasefire, the formation of a transitional government, and parliamentary and presidential elections.

As Assad spoke, the violence showed no let-up on the ground. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 19 people were killed on Sunday, 13 of them civilians, according to a preliminary toll.

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