Assad Rallies Syrians; Western Journalist Killed

Posted January 11th, 2012 at 5:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance Wednesday, telling thousands of supporters in Damascus that his government will defeat a “conspiracy” behind 10 months of opposition unrest.

Mr. Assad, surrounded by security guards and casually dressed, told the crowd he drew strength from their presence. He said that “true patriots” are defending the nation.

The speech came a day after Mr. Assad gave a televised address vowing to use an “iron fist” against “terrorists” whom he says are driving the revolt against his 11-year autocratic rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Mr. Assad's address as “chillingly cynical.” She told reporters in Washington that instead of taking responsibility, he was only “making excuses, blaming foreign countries, conspiracies.”

The State Department also updated the travel warning for Syria Wednesday and said it has ordered a further reduction in staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. The warning says U.S. citizens should avoid all travel to Syria and urges Americans currently in Syria to depart immediately while commercial transportation is available.

Meanwhile, violence continued in Syria Wednesday, with more casualties reported.

A French television reporter was killed and at least one other foreign journalist was wounded during a trip to the restive city of Homs, which has been a hub of anti-government unrest.

France 2 Television said Gilles Jacquier died in a mortar or rocket attack. He is the first Western journalist to be killed since the unrest began 10 months ago.

A British-based Syrian rights group told VOA that government tank fire struck a group of journalists, causing several casualties. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the attack an “odious act” and demanded an investigation.

Violence was also reported in the desert town of Deir ez Zor and in the region of Hama, as well as to the south near Daraa.

In other news, an Algerian member of the Arab League observer team, Anwar Malek, resigned his post Wednesday. He told al-Jazeera television Damascus was using “all sorts of ruses to deceive observers,” including “changing street names and dressing police as civilians.” Malek described the monitoring mission as a “farce” and said the government “fabricated” most of what the observers saw.

The United Nations estimates at least 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising, many of them peaceful protesters attacked by Syrian security forces. Others have been killed in fighting between the Syrian military and army defectors who have joined the rebellion in recent months.