Middle East

Syria unrest: Bashar al-Assad giving rare speech

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Media captionLIVE: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes a rare public address

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is giving a rare public address amid ongoing protests and bloodshed.

State media said the speech would address "internal issues and international and regional developments", without giving details.

Violence is continuing despite the presence of Arab League observers meant to oversee a peace plan.

The opposition accused the mission of serving to cover up a crackdown on almost a year of anti-Assad protests.

It is President Assad's first public speech since the observer mission began more than two weeks ago. It is also his first address since June last year, though he has given several TV interviews since then.

In previous addresses, the president has given no indications that his role is threatened or that he should leave office, says the BBC's Jonathan Head in Istanbul, in neighbouring Turkey.

Instead, he has stressed that his opponents are "terrorists" and that he is the man best suited to lead Syria out of its crisis, says our correspondent.

The UN said last month that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed since protests against President Assad began in March last year.

The government says it is fighting armed groups, and that about 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed so far.

In recent months army deserters have joined the opposition and targeted government forces.

The 165 observers are in Syria to monitor compliance with an Arab League plan that calls for an end to all violence, the removal of heavy weapons from cities and the release of all political prisoners.

But the killing has continued unabated. Hundreds of protesters have died since the mission arrived two weeks ago.

The Local Co-Ordination Committee, a network of anti-government activists, said another 21 people had been killed in various parts of Syria on Monday.

The reports are difficult to verify, with most foreign media barred from working in Syria.

'Step backward'

Image caption The observers' role has become increasingly controversial

At the weekend Arab League ministers meeting in Cairo discussed a report saying "the killing has been reduced". The ministers said the mission would continue.

But on Monday the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) called the report "a step backwards in the efforts by the league" which "not reflect the reality seen by the observers on the ground", according to an SNC statement quoted by AFP news agency.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which is part of the SNC, said the monitoring mission "seeks to cover up the crimes of the Syrian regime by giving it the time and opportunity to kill our people".

On Monday the prime minister of neighbouring Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Ankara should take a leading role in helping resolve the crisis.

"The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented," he told a news conference.