By RUSSELL GOLDMAN | ABC News
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defiantly denied any suggestion that he has ordered a bloody crackdown against protesters who are demanding that he resign, and claims instead that most of the people who died in the unrest were his supporters and troops.
Assad, whose regime has been condemned by the West, the Arab League and former allies, dismissed suggestions that he step down and scoffed at sanctions being imposed on Syria.
His defiant stance was on display in an exclusive interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters who confronted the Syrian dictator in Damascus with stories and evidence of civilians being tortured and killed, some of them children.
"People went from house to house. Children were arrested. I saw those pictures," Walters said to Assad.
"To be frank with you, Barbara, you don't live here. How did you know all this...? This...you have to be here to see," Assad said.
Walters asked Assad about the case of Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy detained by Syrian forces after a protest whose lifeless body was returned to his parents shot, burned and castrated. The boy's death galvanized protesters, and photos on the internet inflamed world opinion.
Assad Tells Barbara Walters Violence Is By Terrorists, Not His Troops
Assad denied the boy had been tortured. "No, no, no. It's not news," he insisted. "I met with his father, the father of that child and he said that he wasn't tortured as he appeared in the media."
The tide of pro-democracy protests sweeping the Arab world reached Syria in mid-March and news of violent clashes between protesters and government agents have leaked out of this tightly controlled dictatorship and on to the Internet. The bodies of the dead, some of them children, have been found bearing the marks of torture.
According to a United Nations report released last week, more than 4,000 people have been killed and the country is embroiled in an undeclared civil war, an assessment Assad dismissed with the question, "Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?"
In an unprecedented condemnation of a fellow Muslim nation, the Arab League recently imposed sanctions, and last month one-time ally Turkey called on Assad to resign the presidency, an office he's held since 2000.
In his interview with Walters, his first sit down with an American journalist since the protests began, Assad denied he ordered a crackdown and blamed the violence on criminals, religious extremists and terrorists sympathetic to al Qaeda he claims are mixed in with peaceful demonstrators.
He said the victims of the street violence were not civilians protesters battling decades of one-party rule, he insisted.
"Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa," he said. The dead have included 1,100 soldiers and police, he said.
Assad conceded only that some members of his armed forces went too far, but claims they were punished for their actions.
"Every 'brute reaction' was by an individual, not by an institution, that's what you have to know," he said. "There is a difference between having a policy to crackdown and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference," said Assad.
"But you have to give the order," countered Walters.
"We don't kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it's led by a crazy person," Assad said.
At another point he said, "There was no command to kill or be brutal."
Syria's Assad Scoff as Threat of Sanctions
In an echo of recently deposed Arab strongmen, Assad said he was introducing reforms and elections, starting with local elections this year. The vote on his presidency isn't scheduled until 2014, a wait that may be too long for Syrian dissidents. But the elections can't be rushed, Assad said.
"We never said we are democratic country… We are moving forward in reforms, especially in the last nine months… It takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledged democracy."
Assad said the threat of sanctions did not worry him. "We've been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It's not something new."
Despite the decades of economic sanctions, "We're not isolated. You have people coming and going, you have trade, you have everything," he said.
Walters asked Assad if he regretted the violence that has wracked his country, left thousands dead and make Syria a pariah state.
"I did my best to protect the people," he said. "I cannot feel guilty when you do your best. You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost. But you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people. So it's not about guilty."
(Editor's note: Due to a transcription error, the initial version of this story misstated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quote in response to Barbara Walters question about Syrian forces allegedly going from house to house, arresting children. His actual quote was: "To be frank with you, Barbara, you don't live here. How did you know all this...? This...you have to be here to see.")
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