Syrian president claims 'crisis' nearing end

Associated Press
Two Syrian men carry their belongings, to cross the border illegally through the river, as they flee from violence in Talkalakh in west Syria, in the Wadi Khaled area, about one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the Lebanon-Syria border, north Lebanon, Monday May 16, 2011. Carrying mattresses and bags of clothing, Syrians fleeing their homeland described a "catastrophic" scene Monday in a besieged border town that has been largely sealed off as the army tries to crush a two-month uprising. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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Syria's president acknowledged his security forces made mistakes in the deadly crackdown on protesters, but suggested in statements published Wednesday that the current "crisis" was nearing its end even as attacks raged.

The comments by Bashar Assad — carried in the private Al-Watan newspaper — appear designed to portray confidence and defiance as international pressures mount over Syria's brutal offensive against a two-month uprising challenging Assad's authoritarian rule.

But there were no signs of Assad's forces easing its offensives despite the boasts of gaining the upper hand.

Tanks shelled a western border town, which has been the focus of attacks since last week. Rights groups also said troops used heavy machine guns to attack a neighborhood in the central city of Homs, which has been a hotbed of protests.

Assad has come under growing condemnation for its attacks and Western governments, including the United States, have called for stronger economic clampdowns on Syria.

Yet Assad was bolstered by a longtime ally as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow will not support any U.N. resolutions or sanctions against Syria.

Meanwhile, a call by protesters for a nationwide general strike went widely unheeded in a possible sign that Assad's regime still has support in the business community and it intimidation tactics could be undermining the uprising.

On Wednesday, Assad was quoted as saying the country's security forces have made mistakes during the uprising, blaming poorly trained police officers at least in part for a crackdown that has killed more than 850 people over the past two months.

Assad's comments downplayed the extent of the violence in the crackdown — but they were a rare acknowledgment of shortcomings within Syria's powerful security agencies.

Assad said thousands of police officers were receiving new training and that the "crisis" was nearing an end.

In the latest blow to Syria's international standing, the Swiss government passed a measure restricting arms sales to Syria and freezing the assets and banning the travel to Switzerland of 13 senior Syrian officials. The arms embargo is largely theoretical because Switzerland hasn't exported weapons to Syria in over a decade, but any Swiss banks holding assets of the 13 officials will have to declare them immediately to the government.

In western Syria, witnesses said the army shelled the border town of Talkalakh and security forces were making arrests.

Activists say at least 27 people have been killed since last week in Talkalakh, a town largely seen as an opposition stronghold.

A resident in Talkalakh said it was impossible to know how many had died there.

"They are bombing us with tanks, it's been going on for days," he told The Associated Press by phone. "Security forces are making random arrests, there isn't one security apparatus that they have not sent to the town," he said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Syria has banned foreign journalists and prevented coverage of the conflict, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country. Most witnesses spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, out of fear for their own

Syrians fleeing to Lebanon in recent days have described horrific scenes of execution-style slayings and bodies in the streets in Talkalakh, which has been reportedly encircled by security forces.

More than 5,000 people have crossed from Talkalakh across a shallow river into Wadi Khaled on the Lebanese side of the border. The flow, however, appeared to be slowing Wednesday, with very few people seen crossing into Lebanon.

Assad "is not a president," said Mohammad, a Syrian who fled Talkalakh three days earlier and was taking shelter along with others in a mosque in Wadi Khaled. "We elected him to protect us and shelter us, not to displace us," he told Associated Press Television News.

At least one family of women was seen returning to Syria with bread and other groceries they had bought in Lebanon.

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