Assad blames unrest on saboteurs, pledges reforms

AMMAN, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad  said today “saboteurs” were behind unrest against his rule  and that political accommodation could not be reached with  gunmen.
In just his third speech since the demonstrations began four  months ago, Assad appeared tense as he pledged to pursue a  national dialogue on reform and held out the prospect of  expanding a recent amnesty.
But he said: “We have to distinguish between (protesters,  and others who have legitimate demands) and saboteurs. The  saboteurs are a small group that tried to exploit the kind  majority of the Syrian people to carry out their many schemes.”
No political solution was possible with people carrying  weapons, he said.
As Syrian forces swept through the northwestern border  region with Turkey, blocking refugees fleeing a military  crackdown, Assad called on the 10,000 who have already crossed  the frontier to come home.
“There are those who give them the impression that the state  will exact revenge, I affirm that is not true. The army is there  for security,” he said in the speech at Damascus University.
A committee on national dialogue will meet in the next few  days and invite more than 100 personalities to discuss the  criteria and mechanism for constitutional reform, he said. He  set a one-month target date for presenting recommendations.
Syria’s military operation along the Turkish border follows  the biggest protests in four months of anti-Assad unrest on  Friday which a violent clampdown has failed to quash.
Security forces shot dead up to 19 protesters on Friday,  rights groups said.
In addition to the more than 10,000 Syrian refugees now in  Turkey, a further 10,000 are sheltering close to the border just  inside Syria in the olive groves and rich farmland around the  town of Jisr al-Shughour, Turkish officials said.
But Syrian human rights campaigner Ammar al-Qurabi said the  army was now stopping those still inside Syria from leaving.
“The Syrian army has spread around the border area to prevent  frightened residents from fleeing across the border to Turkey,”  he told Reuters.
Qurabi also accused pro-government forces of attacking  people trying to aid the refugees as they fled.
The violence so close to its border challenges Turkey’s  foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbours” that has seen  it befriend the Middle East’s autocratic rulers while presenting  itself as a champion of democracy.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey has  pledged to keep his borders open to refugees and has called the  Syrian government crackdown “savagery”, but beyond words, it is  not clear whether Ankara’s rapprochement with Damascus has  earned Turkey any influence with Assad to halt the violence.

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