Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a U.S. television interview released Wednesday denied ordering the killing of protesters, saying that “only a crazy person” would do so.
Speaking to ABC News, Assad questioned the U.N. death toll of more than 4,000 in the unrest and said most victims were government supporters. He also brushed aside international sanctions and said Syria had launched democratic reforms.
Assad – speaking to veteran journalist Barbara Walters in a rare interview to foreign media – said he was not responsible for the nine months of bloodshed and blamed any excesses on individuals rather than his regime.
“We don’t kill our people,” ABC News quoted Assad as saying. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Assad conceded that some members of his armed forces had gone too far, but said they had been punished.
“Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not an institution, that’s what you have to know,” he said.
“There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials,” he said. “There was no command to kill or be brutal.”
Witnesses and human rights groups say Syrian forces have used intense force and torture to crush the biggest threat to the Assad family’s four-decade rule.
The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 people have died since the uprising began in March, part of a wave of pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world that by now have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Assad dismissed the death toll, saying: “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?”
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Assad said, giving a figure of 1,100 dead soldiers and police.
Assad said that his government was moving ahead with reforms but stated flatly: “We never said we are democratic country.”
“It takes a long time,” Assad said. “It takes a lot of maturity to be full-fledged democracy.”
Assad told ABC News such threats did not worry him, saying: “We’ve been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It’s not something new.”
Syria has come under growing pressure from the United States, European Union, Arab League and non-Arab Turkey to stop the violence.
The Arab League has threatened to impose new sanctions unless Syria lets in monitors. In a letter late Sunday, Assad’s regime said it will allow monitors but only if conditions are met.
The United States and France on Tuesday sent their ambassadors back to Syria, hoping that they will help shed a light on the violence and show solidarity with protesters after being pulled out due to security concerns.
Syria accuses “armed terrorist groups” of fueling the unrest, which comes amid a wave of street protests across the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quoted in U.S. media as saying it was “ludicrous” that Assad was “attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country”.
ABC News said that it was Assad’s first interview to U.S. media since Syria launched the crackdown in March.
Walters, 82, is known for interviews that seek to probe high-profile figures’ personal sides. She is a creator of the popular ABC News morning show “The View,” which features a panel of women hosts.
Calls for patience
Russia and Algeria both called for the Arab League peace plan, which Syria says it is considering, to be given time.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that months of effort to secure agreement on a regional plan had now finally started a handover of power in Yemen.
“The same kind of patience, the same kind of responsibility need to be exercised in relation to the realization of the plan of the Arab League in Syria,” he told reporters after attending a meeting in Lithuania of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told lawmakers in Paris that Syria was in a “pre-civil war situation”.
“Today we are in a situation where we are putting pressure on the Syrian government and, on the other hand, talking to the opposition to create the conditions for dialogue,” he said.
“Outside of this dialogue, this transition will not happen. We must give the maximum chance to this Arab initiative.”
Syria’s state news agency SANA said an “armed terrorist group” had shot dead an army pilot on Tuesday in front of his home in the city of Homs, scene of some of the worst violence.
On Tuesday, SANA had reported that Syrian border guards had blocked an attempt by about 35 “armed terrorists” to enter from Turkey.
It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey where they were picked up in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.
Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.