Syrian president blames protests on ‘saboteurs’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday that the unrest in his country was caused by a small group of “saboteurs.”

“We should distinguish between demonstrators and a minority of saboteurs,” the embattled Syrian leader said in his third address to the nation since an uprising against his authoritarian rule broke out three months ago.

Assad said armed groups had used the peaceful protests as a cover-up for their illegal activities, making government intervention the only solution. He added that many of the protesters were being paid to demonstrate.

“What is happening today has nothing to do with reform, it has to do with vandalism,” he said. “There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism.”

Human rights groups have estimated the death toll from clashes between government troops and protesters at around 1,400 people and say around 10,000 others have been arrested.

Some 11,000 people have crossed the border with Turkey, overwhelming refugee camps at the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

Official Syrian reports have said that some 340 troops have been killed by armed protesters who continue to demand Assad’s resignation despite the government’s pledge to carry out social and economic reforms in the country.

The main threat currently facing Syria is a potential economic collapse, Assad said, challenging a statement by his finance minister earlier this month, who said that the Syrian economy is “strong.” The country has as much as $18 billion in foreign reserves, the equivalent of two years of imports, Mohammad Jleilati said.

Observers say the Syrian economy is likely to become a factor that will determine the future of Assad’s regime. The unrest in the country has caused major economic problems, including falling numbers of tourists visiting the Arab country, freezing trade and industrial production, and significant staff cuts by many companies.

Assad said on Monday he hoped that his country would be able to overcome the “transitional period… between a hard yesterday with its chaos, pain and blood of innocent people, and a hopeful tomorrow.”

The reforms that are under way in Syria, including new laws on political parties and media being currently developed, will create a “new reality and lead to crucial changes” in the country, he said.

A national dialogue authority has been created to draw up a reform plan, and another committee would be created to examine the constitution, Assad said, adding that changes may be introduced to the constitution by the end of the year or even a new constitution may be adopted that would allow new parliamentary elections to challenge the Baath party’s half-century rule.

Assad called on the Syrian public to support the reforms and monitor demonstrations and on those who have fled the country amid the unrest to return home “as soon as possible.”

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