Syria Rejects Calls for President Bashar Assad to Step Down

BEIRUT -- A government owned Syrian newspaper on Saturday rejected U.S. and European calls for President Bashar Assad to step down, saying they revealed the "face of the conspiracy" against Damascus.

Despite the regime's promises this week that it had wrapped up a military offensive against protesters, activists said that security forces killed 29 people on Friday, most of them in the central province of Homs.

The Syrian leader has come under mounting criticism for his assault on the 5-month-old uprising. The U.S. and its European allies on Thursday demanded Assad step down because of the crackdown, which rights groups say has killed more than 2,000 people.

The regime, however, has pushed ahead with its offensive despite the criticism.

Reinforcements were being sent Saturday to Homs, Syria's third-largest city and the site of intense anti-regime protests, according to the Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group.

"Shooting has not stopped since last night," Abdul-Rahman said, quoting residents.

The military offensive has focused on Homs, the coastal city of Latakia, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, and the central flashpoint city of Hama.

In an amateur video posted online and said to have been taken in Hama, Syrian soldiers kick and slap four male detainees sitting handcuffed next to a desert road.

One of the men could be heard telling the officers beating him "if you have a picture of me or if anyone says I took part in a demonstration then slaughter me. Cut me to pieces."

The soldiers then kick the men in the face and on their heads as they beg for mercy.

The Associated Press could not verify the video. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground.

The continuation of the crackdown, despite Assad's assurances that it had ended, suggests he is either unwilling to stop the violence -- or not fully in control of his own regime.

On Saturday, the government issued its first official response to the U.S. and European demands for Assad to step down.

The daily Al-Thawra newspaper, which speaks for the Syrian regime, rejected the calls and any kind of foreign intervention in Syria's internal affairs, saying Damascus "will never permit anyone to do that."

It also accused the West of trying to sideline Damascus from the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, which it said is a strategic aim for Israel, Washington and Europe.

Syria is a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict and is in a state of war with the Jewish state. Syria is also Iran's strongest ally in the Arab world and supports Islamic militant groups like Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

A high-level U.N. team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.

On Friday, the U.N. released the full text of its report on the crackdown.

It said Syrian government forces may have committed crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children. The release includes rebuttals from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, offering a rare firsthand look into the regime's justifications for the crackdown.