Middle East

Syria unrest: Assad says his government will not fall

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Media captionPresident Bashar al-Assad: ''The solution in Syria remains a political one''

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said his government is in no danger of falling, despite months of protests.

In an interview on state TV, he said the solution in Syria was a political one, but violence should be dealt with firmly by the security forces.

He said steps were being taken to introduce a multi-party system and elections might be held in February.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council is set to meet in Geneva to discuss the crisis, which has left some 2,500 dead.

The council is expected to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian government for its actions against demonstrators opposed to President Assad.

Earlier this month, UN investigators accused the Syrian security forces of widespread human rights violations.

On Friday, at least 40 people were reportedly killed across the country.

The US and several EU members have called on Mr Assad to step down.

Syria's protests first erupted in mid-March. The demonstrators are demanding the removal of President Assad, whose family have been in power for 40 years.

Human rights groups say that about 2,000 civilians and 500 soldiers have been killed and thousands arrested since March. The government has blamed the unrest on "terrorist groups".

'Secret maps'

In Sunday's interview, Mr Assad warned that any foreign military intervention would backfire on those who carry it out.

Image caption Syria's government had promised to stop military and police operations

"Any action against Syria will have greater consequences than they can tolerate," the president said.

"First, because of Syria's geopolitical location and second because of Syrian capabilities."

He also said opponents of the regime were increasingly resorting to violence, carrying out attacks on the military, the police and other security forces.

Mr Assad added that it was US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders who should be standing down because of the blood they had spilled in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and because of their political, economic and social bankruptcy at home.

The interview was Mr Assad's fourth public appearance since the protests began.

It came as a UN delegation has arrived in Syria to assess humanitarian needs.

The team has been told it can visit all trouble spots, but the BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says there is some scepticism about how free its movements will be.

Despite recent assurances from the president that the army and police operations against civilians had stopped, activists' accounts and internet video postings indicate nothing much has changed.

Syria's anti-government protests, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, first erupted in mid-March after the arrest of a group of teenagers who spray-painted a revolutionary slogan on a wall. The protests soon spread, and the UN says 3,500 people have died in the turmoil - mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces - while thousands more have been injured.
Although the arrest of the teenagers in the southern city of Deraa first prompted people to take to the streets, unrest has since spread to other areas, including Hama, Homs, Latakia, Jisr al-Shughour and Baniyas. Demonstrators are demanding greater freedom, an end to corruption, and, increasingly, the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad.
The government has responded to the protests with overwhelming military force, sending tanks and troops into towns and cities. Amateur video footage shows tanks and snipers firing on unarmed protesters. There may have been an armed element to the uprising from its early days and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army.
Some of the bloodiest events have taken place in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. In early June, officials claimed 120 security personnel were killed by armed gangs, however protesters said the dead were shot by troops for refusing to kill demonstrators. As the military moved to take control of the town, thousands fled to neighbouring Turkey, taking refuge in camps.
Although the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo have seen pockets of unrest and some protests, it has not been widespread - due partly to a heavy security presence. There have been rallies in the capital - one with an enormous Syrian flag - in support of President Assad, who still receives the backing of many in Syria's middle class, business elite and minority groups.
The Assad family has been in power for 40 years, with Bashar al-Assad inheriting office in 2000. The president has opened up the economy, but has continued to jail critics and control the media. He is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shia Islam - but the country's 20 million people are mainly Sunni. The biggest protests have been in Sunni-majority areas.
The uprising has cost 3,500 lives, according to the UN and Jordan's King Abdullah says that President Assad should now step down. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and voted for sanctions. The EU has frozen the assets of Syrian officials, placed an arms embargo on Syria and banned imports of its oil. But fears remain of Syria collapsing into civil war.
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