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Assad: Syria faces 'real war waged from the outside'

Thirteen men were shot dead at close range in Syria. Activists claim the killers were government militia. The government blames the rebels. NBC's John Ray reports. Some of the images in this report may be disturbing.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has said that his country is engaged in a "real war" with outside forces and denied any role in the Houla massacre, which he said was carried by “monsters.”

In his first public address since January, he warned he would not be lenient on those he blamed for violence in the country, and promised that a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.

Dsk / AFP - Getty Images

An image grab taken from Syrian state TV shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressing the parliament in Damascus on Sunday.

In a speech to parliament, he repeated many of his earlier pledges to maintain a crackdown on opponents he describes as terrorists implementing a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with those opposition figures who have avoided armed conflict or outside backing.

He made his comments a day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing daily in Syria and the world needed to see actions, not words, from Assad.

Jim Muir, the BBC correspondent in Beirut, said: “Anybody hoping that President Assad's first public speech since January might open up some lines of advance towards a solution will have been disappointed.”

In his hour-long address, Assad offered no specific response to Annan's plea for bold steps to end the conflict.

Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests against Assad, which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.

"This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an outside war carried out by inside elements," Assad said, looking relaxed as he spoke to parliamentarians. "If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near."

'True monstrosities'
Last month's massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria's relentless bloodshed - undimmed by Annan's April 12 ceasefire deal - could engulf the Middle East.

Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah.

Western powers have accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killing, a charge Damascus has denied.

Despite the discovery of another atrocity following the recent massacre in Huola, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad showed no sign of relinquishing his power. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

"What happened in Houla...and what we described as ugly and abominable massacres, or true monstrosities - even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen," Assad said.

He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month's election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.

"We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political programme. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism," Assad said.

"The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside," Assad said.

Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must make "bold and visible" steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease all violence.

Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in a crackdown on protests against Assad. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.

Anybody hoping that President Assad's first public speech since January might open up some lines of advance towards a solution will have been disappointed.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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