DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad joined thousands of his supporters Wednesday in an extremely rare public appearance, telling a pro-regime rally in the capital that the "conspiracy" against his country will fail.
Dressed more casually than usual in a jacket but no tie, the president told the cheering crowd that he wanted to draw strength from them. Security guards surrounded him as supporters waved his portrait and raised Syrian flags.
"It is important that we maintain our faith in the future," said Assad, 46, who has made very few public appearances since the uprising against his regime began 10 months ago. "I have that faith in the future and we will undoubtedly triumph over this conspiracy."
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has blamed the revolt on foreign-backed terrorists and conspirators. On Tuesday, he gave his first speech since June and said he would strike back at those who threaten his regime with an "iron hand."
In both appearances, Assad appeared determined to show strength and confidence as the conflict in Syria is entering a new and heightened phase, with army defectors and some members of the opposition increasingly turning weapons on government targets.
Opponents say Assad is dangerously out of touch.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Syria had stepped up killings of opponents since Arab monitors arrived in the country in late December to assess whether the government is abiding by its agreement to an Arab League plan to end the military crackdown on dissent.
On Tuesday, diplomats quoted U.N. political chief B. Lynn Pascoe as saying about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier U.N. estimate of more than 5,000 dead since March. Rice said that rate was even higher than before the monitors arrived and a clear indication the Syrian government was stepping up the violence.
Also Wednesday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fresh violence in Syria. The group said soldiers and army defectors were fighting Wednesday in central Hama province. There was no immediate word on casualties.
The group also said regime forces fired on students demonstrating in Daraya in Damascus province.
The Arab League mission came under fresh scrutiny Wednesday after a former monitor said he quit in disgust because the regime was committing "war crimes" against its own people.
"The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled," Anwer Malek told Al-Jazeera in an interviewed broadcast late Tuesday. "The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime," Malek said, still wearing the orange vest used by monitors.
According to Al-Jazeera's transcript of the interview, Malek said the regime is committing "a series of crimes against its people."
"The regime didn't meet any of our requests, in fact they were trying to deceive us and steer us away from what was really happening toward insignificant things," he said in the interview. "They didn't withdraw their tanks from the streets they just hid them and redeployed them after we left."
There was no immediate comment from the Arab League. But Malek's name was on a list of the observers who were sent to Syria last month. He was identified as a Tunisian working for the Paris-based Arab Committee for Human Rights.
According to an Arab League official, three observers declined to complete their mission and returned, citing health problems. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, didn't identify the three.
Opposition groups have been deeply critical of the Arab League mission, saying it is giving Assad cover for his ongoing crackdown. The observer mission's Sudanese chief has raised particular concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Critics also say the mission is far too small — and too dependent on government escorts — to be effective. The regime says the escorts are vital to the monitors' personal safety.
Kennedy reported from Beirut. AP writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.