BEIRUT/AMMAN Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the "abominable" massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.
Assad repeated earlier pledges to enforce a crackdown on opponents he says are terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with opposition figures who had avoided armed conflict or outside backing.
His remarks were at odds with those of U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous - that army shelling killed many Houla victims and that pro-Assad militiamen probably killed the others, many of them women and children.
Assad made his comments in a speech to parliament, a rare public appearance one day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the specter of all-out civil war was growing in Syria and the world needed to see action, not words, from Syria's leader.
In his hour-long address, Assad made no specific response to Annan's plea for bold steps to end the conflict, and regional power Saudi Arabia accused him of using Annan's peace plan to buy time for his military offensive against the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had urged Russia to push harder for "political transition" in Syria, language which Washington uses to mean ending Assad's rule.
Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.
"This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements," said a relaxed-looking Assad. "If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near."
Dismissing worldwide criticism, which includes accusations from U.N. investigators that both government and rebel forces have committed gross human rights violations, the 46-year-old former eye surgeon drew parallels with his earlier profession.
When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound "do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood'?" Assad asked. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
Last month's massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria's relentless bloodshed - undimmed by Annan's April 12 ceasefire deal - could engulf the Middle East.
Sunni Muslim powers, particularly wealthy Gulf Arab states, have strongly supported the uprising against Assad, an Alawite closely allied with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah.
Western states accused Syrian armed forces and pro-Assad militia of responsibility for the May 25 Houla killings, a charge Damascus has denied.
Assad said the Houla killings and other bloody incidents were "ugly and abominable" massacres. "In truth even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen, especially the Houla massacre," he said.
SYRIA FACES "REAL WAR"
He said his country was facing a war waged from outside and that terrorism was escalating despite political steps including last month's election for parliament, whose new members Assad was addressing.
"We are not facing a political problem because if we were this party would put forth a political program. What we are facing is (an attempt) to sow sectarian strife and the tool of this is terrorism," Assad said. "The issue is terrorism. We are facing a real war waged from the outside."
Clinton, who held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, said she told Lavrov there was a need to "focus on a path forward for a political transition."
"Assad's departure does not have to be a precondition but it should be an outcome," she told a news conference in Stockholm.
Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions which could have led to U.N. action against Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria's bloodshed.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Assad was using Annan's peace plan to buy time to crush rebels.
"We notice that each initiative presented...has been accepted by Syria but has not been implemented," Prince Saud said. "I do not think that he will deal any differently with Annan's initiative."
He also accused Damascus of stoking sectarian tensions which recently spilled over into Lebanon, where Syria maintained a military presence for nearly three decades until it withdrew in 2005 under international pressure.
Fifteen people were killed in clashes on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Tripoli, the worst violence to shake Lebanon since the start of Syria's uprising.
"What happened in Tripoli is without doubt a continuation of what is happening in Syria," Prince Saud said. "We have noticed for some time that the regime in Syria is trying to turn this into a sectarian struggle".
In Syria itself nine civilians were killed on Sunday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. That followed the killings on Saturday of 33 civilians and 61 soldiers, the Observatory said, one of the highest death tolls for security forces since the unrest broke out.
Half the soldiers and security forces were killed in attacks on military armored vehicles in the northern town of Ariha in Idlib province, and in clashes near the central town of Rastan, the Observatory said.
Assad said authorities would maintain their crackdown on the armed opposition but were still ready for dialogue with political opponents.
"We will continue firmly confronting terrorism, leaving the door open for those who want to return. I urge those who are still hesitant to do so, to take this step. The state will not take revenge."
His speech failed to win over sceptics. Abdelbaset Sida of the opposition Syrian National Council dismissed it as rhetoric.
"Assad wants to remain the head of a repressive system at all costs. He does not want to admit that his time his over and that the Syrian people do not want him," he told Reuters by telephone from Istanbul.
Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, told an Arab League meeting in Qatar on Saturday that Assad must take "bold and visible" steps immediately to change his military stance and honor his commitment to cease violence.
Annan criticized Assad for failing to comply with a peace plan to end the conflict and said his forces were carrying out atrocities, arbitrary arrests and other abuses.
The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the crackdown. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.