Syria violence rages on after Assad shrugs off pressure, remains defiant

BEIRUT Syria's state media said Monday that government troops had repulsed a rebel attack on a police school in the northern city of Aleppo, one day after President Bashar Assad called on Syrians to fight an opposition that he characterized as religious extremists.

SANA news agency said members of the "terrorist group" were killed and wounded in the late Sunday battle but did not specify the number. The government and the pro-regime media refer to rebels as terrorists.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a major front in the civil war since July, with battles often raging for control of military and security facilities such as the police school. Rebels have recently made significant advances there, in the east, and in the capital Damascus, bringing the civil war closer to the seat of Assad's power.

In his speech Sunday, Assad laid out terms for a peace plan but dismissed any chance of dialogue with "murderous criminals" who he said were responsible for nearly two years of violence. Nearly 60,000 people have died, according to a recent United Nations estimate.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer says Assad's proposition was a non-starter for the opposition movement, as it excluded key opposition groups at the outset, and made no mention of Assad himself stepping down.

In spite of increasing international pressure, and hopes that he might use the rare appearance to announce something significant, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring demands for him to step down and saying he is ready to hold a dialogue — but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria." He also vowed to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left."

He offered a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution but demanded regional and Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime first.

Syria's opposition swiftly rejected the proposal. Those fighting to topple the regime, including rebels on the ground, have repeatedly said they will accept nothing less than the president's departure, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves him in the picture.

The West, including the U.S. and Britain that have called on Assad to step down denounced the speech that came amid stepped-up international efforts for a peaceful way out of the Syrian conflict.

With fears intensifying that Syria's civil war could turn into a wider regional conflict, the Dutch military shipped Patriot missile batteries to fellow NATO member Turkey on Monday, to boost Turkey's air defenses along its southern border with Syria.

The two Dutch batteries were part of a NATO contingent of Patriot missiles that intercept incoming ballistic missiles. Two U.S. and two German batteries were also being deployed to other parts of southern Turkey.

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The foreign minister of Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, hailed Assad's initiative. Ali Akbar Salehi said it contains "solutions" to the conflict and outlines "a comprehensive political process which guarantees the presence of all voices in power." Salehi called on the international community to support Assad's plan to end the war in Syria.

"All regional and international partners should help the immediate resolution of the crisis and prevent its spread to the region," Salehi said in a statement that was carried by the state-run IRNA news agency Monday.

Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the bloodshed.

Syria's conflict began as peaceful protests against Assad's authoritarian rule in March 2011. It quickly morphed into civil war after a brutal government crackdown on dissent. The conflict has increasingly taken sectarian overtones in the past year, with predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the ruling regime that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.

Fighting continued unabated the day after Assad's address of the nation.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels clashed with troops in the suburbs of Damascus, including in Daraya south of the capital. They said the army sent new reinforcements there to join in an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few miles from a strategic military air base west of the capital, the Observatory said.

The towns and cities around Damascus have seen relentless fighting in the past weeks, as rebels try to push through the government's heavy defenses in the capital. The regime has responded with withering counterattacks including barrages by artillery and warplanes. The Observatory also reported clashes in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, in the central region of Homs and in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising in March 2011.

There were no reports on casualties in Monday's fighting. At least 80 people were killed in violence nationwide the day before, according to The Observatory's tally. The group relies on reports from activists on the ground.