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Assad: "Monsters" to blame for Syria massacre

Syrians watch the televised speech of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a store in Damascus on June 3, 2012. In a rare televised speech delivered in parliament, Assad said that his government faces a foreign plot to destroy Syria, and blamed "monsters" for the Houla massacre.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS/AP) BEIRUT - Syrian President Bashar Assad denied Sunday that his government had anything to do with last week's gruesome Houla massacre, saying not even "monsters" would carry out such an ugly crime.

In a televised speech to parliament, Assad blamed foreign-backed terrorists and extremists for the bloodshed. "We are facing a real war from outside," he said.

"Despite the political and reform process which we launched, terror has not stopped. I don't have a magic wand. I have tried all political solutions with no avail. Terror will not stop unless we force it to stop," he said in his televised speech.

He pledged to press ahead with his military crackdown.

"The enemy has entered to the inside. We hate blood, but we have to deal with the situation on the ground as it needs to be dealt with," the Syrian leader warned.

The president's first comments on the massacre expressed horror over the deaths of more than 100 people, nearly half of them children. U.N. investigators say there are strong suspicions that pro-government gunmen carried out the killings, but Assad denied that.

"If we don't feel the pain that squeezes our hearts, as I felt it, for the cruel scenes — especially the children — then we are not human beings," Assad said. His last public address was in January.

Assad, 46, denies that there is any popular will behind the uprising, saying foreign extremists and terrorists are driving the revolt.

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Assad's hour-long speech came as parliament convened for the first time since a controversial May 7 election boycotted by the opposition and dismissed by the West as a farce. The session started with a moment of silence for those who lost their lives for the country.

For days, Assad's speech was awaited in the hope that it would offer a crucial insight into the leadership's willingness to compromise in the face of the uprising and mounting pressure from Turkey, the United States, the European Union and the Arab League, reports CBS News' George Baghdadi.

On Saturday U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan warned of the specter of all-out sectarian warfare, and singled out Assad and his regime as the key to resolving the conflict.

But Assad's remarks Sunday suggest he is still standing his ground. Although his words reflected many of the same general points of his previous speeches — blaming terrorists and extremists, vowing to protect national security — his comments on Houla were widely anticipated.

"Not even monsters would carry out (the crimes) that we have seen, especially the Houla massacre. ... There are no Arabic or even human words to describe it," he said.

Assad said his opponents have ignored his moves toward reform, including a referendum on a new constitution and recent parliamentary elections. He suggested this meant that the call for democracy was not the driving force of the revolt.

"We will not be lenient. We will be forgiving only for those who renounce terrorism," he said.

Assad defended his regime's crackdown against the opposition, likening it to a surgeon performing an operation.

"When a surgeon in an operating room ... cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him, 'Your hands are stained with blood?' Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

"Today we are defending a cause and a country. We do not do this because we like blood. A battle has been forced on us, and the result is this bloodshed that we are seeing," he said.