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Assad rejects peace talks

Assad greets new peace talks with scorn in what is described as a renewed declaration of war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Picture: AFP

BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected peace talks with his enemies on Sunday in a defiant speech that his opponents described as a renewed declaration of war.

Although the speech was billed as the unveiling of a new peace plan, Assad offered no concessions and even appeared to harden many of his positions. He rallied Syrians for "a war to defend the nation" and disparaged the prospect of negotiations.

"We do not reject political dialogue ... but with whom should we hold a dialogue? With extremists who don't believe in any language but killing and terrorism?" Assad asked supporters who packed Damascus Opera House for his first speech since June.

"Should we speak to gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of foreigners? Should we have official dialogue with a puppet made by the West, which has scripted its lines?"

It was his first public speech to an audience in six months. Since the last, rebels have reached the capital's outskirts.

George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National Coalition, told Reuters the peace plan Assad put at the heart of his speech did "not even deserve to be called an initiative":

"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will continue his war against the Syrian people," he said.

"The appropriate response is to continue to resist this unacceptable regime and for the Free Syrian Army to continue its work in liberating Syria until every inch of land is free."

The speech was seen by many as a response to UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been meeting US and Russian officials to try to narrow differences between Washington and Moscow over a peace plan. Brahimi also met Assad in Syria late last month.

"Lakhdar Brahimi must feel foolish after that Assad speech, where his diplomacy is dismissed as intolerable intervention," said Rana Kabbani, a Syrian analyst who supports the opposition.

The United States, European Union, Turkey and most Arab states have called on Assad to quit. Russia, which sells arms to and leases a naval base from Syria, says it backs a transition of power but that Assad's departure should not be a precondition for any talks.