BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad will deliver a speech on Sunday in a rare address to the nation, state media said, as rebels fighting to topple his embattled regime pressed ahead with an offensive on the capital.
The official SANA news agency said in a brief statement Saturday that Assad will speak about the latest developments in Syria. The speech would be the first by the leader since June, and comes amid intense fighting between government troops and rebels on the outskirts of Damascus.
Assad has rarely spoken in public since the uprising against him began in March 2011. In each of his previous speeches and interviews, the president has dug in his heels even as Western powers have moved to boost the opposition in Syria's civil war.
In his last public comments, Assad vowed in an interview with Russia Today on Nov. 8 that he would "live and die in Syria."
Fighting has raged for weeks in the neighborhoods and towns around Damascus that have been opposition strongholds since the Syrian revolt began. The uprising started with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations recent estimate.
The rebels are trying to push through the government's heavy defenses in Damascus, prompting the regime to unleash a withering assault on the suburbs that has included intense barrages by artillery and warplanes.
Diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian crisis have failed so far to bring an end to the bloodshed, although the international community continues to push for a peaceful settlement.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters after a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart in Riyadh that there should be an immediate end to the bloodshed in Syria and called for a peaceful political transition.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both called on Assad to step down, and Riyadh has also been an outspoken supporter of the rebels.
The president of the U.N. Security Council said Thursday there are important developments in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the 21-month conflict in Syria and there could be another U.S.-Russia meeting with international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi next week.
Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both said after their meeting last Saturday that the Syrian crisis can only be settled through talks, while admitting that neither the government nor the opposition has shown a desire to compromise. Neither official hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks about a political transition.
But Lavrov said Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of stepping down — a key opposition demand — and it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian government, and has shielded it from punitive measures at the U.N.
It was not clear what kind of initiative, if any, Assad may offer in his speech.
Meanwhile the violence continued unabated Saturday.
Rebels and government troops clashed in suburbs south of Damascus, including Harasta and Daraya, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Fighting in Daraya alone left 10 dead, including six rebels, according to the Observatory, which relies on reports by activists on the ground.
The army dispatched fresh reinforcements to Daraya, part of an offensive aimed at dislodging rebels from the district, located just a few kilometers (miles) from a strategic military air base west of the capital, the Observatory said. Regaining control of Daraya would provide a boost to the regime's defense of Damascus.
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