WASHINGTON, (AFP) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied ordering the killing of thousands of protesters and said “only a crazy person” would target his own people, in a rare US interview released Wednesday.
Speaking to ABC News, Assad brushed off widening international sanctions and questioned the UN death toll of more than 4,000 since the eruption of the unrest in March, saying most victims were government supporters.
Assad — speaking to veteran journalist Barbara Walters in a rare interview to foreign media — said he was not responsible for the 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.”
“There was no command to kill or be brutal,” Assad said.
Witnesses and human rights groups say Syrian forces have used intense force, mass arrests and torture to try and crush the biggest threat to the Assad family’s four-decade-long 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.
The conflict is said to have taken a heavy toll on children who either took part in protests or were targeted because of their parents’ involvement. A UN-appointed investigator said that Syria killed 56 children in November alone.
Walters pressed Assad on the case of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who rights group say was killed in April after being shot, burned and castrated.
“To be frank with you, Barbara, I don’t believe you,” Assad said of alleged abuse of children.
“Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” Assad said.
“There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There is a big difference.”
Assad’s brother, Lieutenant Colonel Maher al-Assad, heads the army’s Fourth Division, which oversees the capital as well as the elite Republican Guard.
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.”
Syria has faced growing international condemnation, including Western sanctions and similar action by the Arab League and neighboring Turkey.
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.”