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Syrian president plans speech on status of war

Battles rage on as rebels push against capital

Syrians stomped on a portrait of President Bashar Assad during a protest in Aleppo on Friday. The UN said more than 60,000 people have been killed since the crisis began.

ANDONI LUBAKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Syrians stomped on a portrait of President Bashar Assad during a protest in Aleppo on Friday. The UN said more than 60,000 people have been killed since the crisis began.

BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad of Syria will speak 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.

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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 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 stop the bloodshed, although the international community continues to push for a peaceful settlement.

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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 UN 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 US-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 be settled only 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 cease-fire and sit down for talks about a political transition.

But Lavrov said 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 UN. 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 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.

Government troops also arrested several residents in raids in the suburb of Qatana, the Observatory said. Fighting was also heavy in the central province of Hama, Idlib, and in the southern part of the country, in Daraa, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising.

Besides the deaths in Daraya, 35 people were killed around the country, the group said.

There was also fighting on the road to the Damascus International Airport, which has not been functioning since last month when clashes first erupted on the airport road, and international airlines have yet to resume flights to the capital.

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