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Defiant Assad defends crackdown

Syrian President Bashar Assad defended his government's crackdown on opponents Sunday, saying a doctor performing messy emergency surgery does not have blood on his hands if he is trying to save a patient.

In his first speech since January, Assad appeared unmoved by scathing international criticism of his ferocious response to the 15-month-old revolt against his rule, which has killed up to 13,000 people, according to activist groups. He also denied responsibility for last week's Houla massacre of more than 100 people, saying not even "monsters" would carry out such an ugly crime.

He said terrorists have pushed his country into war.

"When a surgeon in an operating room cuts and cleans and amputates, and the wound bleeds, do we say to him your hands are stained with blood?" Assad said in a televised speech to parliament. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"

Assad, 46, denied his forces had anything to do with Houla.

"Not even monsters would carry out [the crimes] that we have seen, especially the Houla massacre. There are no Arabic or even human words to describe it," he said in his first public comments about the mass killing.

Assad did acknowledge the toll the crisis has taken on the country, suggesting all the blood that has been spilled is necessary to root out the forces working to drive him from power.

"Today we are defending a cause and a country," he said. "We do not do this because we like blood. A battle has been forced on us, and the result is this bloodshed that we are seeing."

Members of the Syrian opposition brushed off his comments as meaningless.

"It is a desperate and silly speech that does not merit a response," said Adib Shishakly, a Saudi-based member of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council.

Shishakly, the grandson of a former president of Syria, described Assad's statements on the Houla massacre as "lies to justify the killings because of the immense international pressure on his regime."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday pressed Russia, Syria's most steadfast ally, to join international efforts for a political transition that would see Assad driven from power, and suggested greater flexibility could come from a previously recalcitrant Moscow.