Syrian President Bashar Assad said Monday that a national dialogue would begin soon, promising parliamentary elections in August and a complete reform package by September, in a speech responding to three months of protests against his rule.
In a televised address at Damascus University, Assad also warned that in listening to calls for reforms, the government must distinguish between people with legitimate needs and "saboteurs".
Assad called on all refugees to return to their homes, and guaranteed their safety, saying that the "army is meant to protect the citizens."
He promised to ask the Justice Ministry to mull expanding the recent amnesty he had extended to political prisoners, and said that 64,000 people have been wanted by Syrian authorities, some of which, he claimed, have handed themselves in.
Assad stressed that the Syrian government has already started implementing reforms, saying examples are the laws he had passed for the right of peaceful protest and his lifting of the state of emergency.
Assad said parliamentary elections are due to take place in August, and that a reform package should be complete by September.
Assad said that many innocent people fell during the protests, and noted that Syria's main option is "to look at the future."
He mentioned the recent attack on the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, calling protesters "gunmen with sophisticated weapons and communications" who had carried out a "massacre" in the city.
Despite brutal suppression by Assad's regime, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets in the past three months to demand greater democracy and civil liberties. Human rights groups have said more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in the unrest.
The latest crackdowns came at the weekend in north-western Syria when government forces besieged several towns. Tanks and machine guns were sent in Saturday to stop anti-government rallies in Bdama near the Turkish border, opposition groups said. Army forces fired randomly at houses and besieged the town, injuring at least 20 people, they said.
The incident was part of operations against government opponents and deserters in Idlib province, which have seen more than 10,500 people, including 5,300 children, flee to Turkey in the past 10 days, Turkey's Anadolu news agency said Sunday.
The Turkish government has allocated about 2.3 million dollars to care for the refugees living in four tent cities. Human rights activists said they fear the besiegement of Bdama could cut off a route for Syrians seeking to flee into Turkey.
Assad's speech is to come on the same day that foreign ministers of the European Union are to debate a tightening of sanctions against his government.
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