In a rare public appearance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has outlined a new peace initiative but blasted his opponents as murderers and puppets.
Speaking in a televised address from a Damascus opera house packed with cheering supporters, Assad acknowledged the devastation of the country's 21-month conflict, saying that "suffering is overwhelming the Syrian land."
"Today, I look at your faces and I look at the faces of the sons of my country. They are full of sorrow and pain," he said. "I look at the eyes of the children of Syria; I don't see innocent smiles and I don't hear innocent laughter. I also don't see them playing in a way that puts smiles on their faces. I don't see them playing with toys. I hold the hands of the elderly. I find that the elderly are praying for their sons or for their daughters or for their grandchildren."
Assad went on to unveil a peace initiative, including a national reconciliation conference and the drafting of a new constitution.
But Assad's rhetoric was uncompromising. Any reconciliation talks, he said, would exclude "those who have betrayed Syria" -- a tacit reference to the armed opposition, which he described as a "puppet made by the West."
Assad also denied the opposition fighting was a political uprising against his family's decades-long rule, blaming the violence on "murderous criminals" and jihadists.
Opposition forces, who have called for Assad's removal from power, are almost certain to reject the presidential initiative.
Walid Bunni, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition National Coalition, said Assad's speech was aimed at wrecking diplomatic efforts led by UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi to end the civil war.
In Brussels, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc would not alter its demand that Assad step aside in order to make way for a political transition.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described Assad's speech as "beyond hypocritical." In a message on Twitter, Hague said the "deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are [Assad's] own making."
The United Nations says as many as 60,000 people have been killed in fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups in March 2011.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP