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Assad's 'peace deal' is dismissed

Syria's embattled president has said he would consider political reforms, but Bashar Assad gave no sign he might step down, the key demand of nationwide protests.

The opposition immediately dismissed Assad's plan, saying it lacked any clear move toward democracy. Activists said thousands of people took to the streets to protest in several cities.

Assad's 70-minute, televised address was only his third public speech since the pro-democracy uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Much of his message was not new, including his claim that the unrest is being driven by armed thugs and foreign conspirators.

"Saboteurs" were trying to exploit legitimate demands for reform, he said.

"What is happening today has nothing to do with reform. It has to do with vandalism," Assad told supporters at Damascus University, where he stood before red, white and black Syrian flags. "There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism."

But he also announced that a "national dialogue" would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way for formation of political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

He said expects a package of reforms by September or the end of the year at the latest.

The vague timetable and few specifics - and lack of any clear move toward ending the Assad family's 40-year rule - left Syrian dissidents deeply dissatisfied.

"It did not give a vision about beginning a new period to start a transfer from a dictatorship into a national democratic regime with political pluralism," Hassan Abdul-Azim, a prominent opposition figure, said.

Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Co-ordination Committees, which tracks the protest movement, said the speech drove thousands of opposition supporters into the streets, calling for the downfall of the regime.

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