Syria's President Bashar al-Assad yesterday confronted critics of the bloodshed caused by the ferocious crackdown on opponents of his regime by comparing himself to a surgeon amputating limbs to save a patient.
Mr Assad again blamed imperialist "foreign meddling" for the 15-month uprising against his regime which opposition leaders claim has seen 13,000 deaths. He also dismissed the widespread accusations that his forces and allied militias were responsible for the Houla massacre 10 days ago in which more than 100 people were killed, including many young children.
In his first speech to parliament since January – and his first public statement since the Houla deaths prompted a fresh round of outrage – Mr Assad showed no sign of bowing to international pressure to seek a compromise with the country's rebel leaders.
Instead, he complained that his opponents had ignored his reform proposals. "We will not be lenient. We will be forgiving only for those who renounce terrorism," he warned.
"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?" he said in his televised speech. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
He added that the efforts to oust him as President were not "a political problem" but a "project to destroy the country... The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside."
The UN Security Council last week unanimously condemned the regime for the Houla massacre, but Mr Assad disavowed any responsibility, declaring: "What happened in Houla and elsewhere [in Syria] are brutal massacres which even monsters would not have carried out."
He added: "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."
Western powers led by the US have attempted to use the outrage over Houla to persuade Russia, Syria's most pivotal ally, to exert more pressure on the Assad regime to play its part in ending the conflict. But although Russia voted for the original UN declaration which said the massacre had "involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood", its foreign ministry insisted yesterday that it was "disturbed that some countries went ahead and cast blame" ahead of an official investigation.
In neighbouring Lebanon, government troops were deployed in the coastal city of Tripoli yesterday after 15 people were killed in fighting between supporters and opponents of the Syrian President.
The conflict was seen as an indication that what is fast threatening to become a full-scale civil war in Syria could yet spread beyond its borders.
Reuters reported that Tripoli residents said relative calm had returned after Lebanese soldiers took up positions at around 7am in the aftermath of exchanges of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades between Sunni Muslims and members of the same Alawite minority to which Mr Assad belongs.
Meanwhile, Adib Shishkaly, a Saudi Arabia-based member of the Syrian National Council, the country's main opposition group, said Mr Assad's statements on Houla were "lies to justify the killings because of the immense international pressure on his regime".