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Syria president promises dialogue; protesters continue to seek ouster

Syria's president promised a national dialogue Monday to consider political reforms, but his vague overtures to a pro-democracy uprising fell flat as protesters took to the streets shouting "Liar!" and demanding his ouster.

In only his third public appearance since the revolt erupted in March, Bashar Assad returned to a now-familiar refrain: He blamed the unrest on "saboteurs," offered modest potential reforms, but gave no sign he'd move toward ending the Assad family's political domination.

He clearly intends to try to ride out the wave of protests, showing the steely determination that has kept the Assads in power for 40 years. But the mobilized opposition appeared to be digging in as well, bracing for a showdown in one of the deadliest uprisings of the Arab Spring.

"The timeline is not in [Assad's] favor," Mideast scholar Shadi Hamid, at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, told the Associated Press after what he called a "disappointing" speech. "The question is, how long can Assad sustain the current situation?"

Standing before a hand-picked crowd of supporters at Damascus University, Assad presented himself as a secure -- and beloved -- leader intent on protecting his people.

He said a national dialogue would start soon and he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to forming political parties other than the ruling Baath Party.

The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad unleashed his military and security forces to crush the protest movement that erupted in March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Activists said protests erupted after the speech in several towns, including in the restive northern province of Idlib, in the cities of Homs, Hama and Latakia in central Syria, and in the southern town of Daraa, where major protests first flared in mid-March.

Many of those demonstrating Monday -- said to number in the thousands -- shouted that people want Assad out. In the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, protesters shouted, "Liar! Liar! Liar!" as they marched.

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