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DAMASCUS - President Bashar al-Assad dismissed on Sunday accusations his government had any role in the brutal Houla massacre, as he accused forces outside Syria of plotting to destroy the country.
In a rare televised address to parliament, Assad, dressed in a smart suit and tie, said even "monsters" were incapable of carrying out massacres such as last month's killings near the town of Houla in central Syria.
At least 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, were slaughtered in the massacre which started on May 25 and spilled into the next day, triggering international outrage.
Assad's defiant speech came as Arab leaders called on the United Nations to act to stop bloodshed in Syria, and France raised the prospect of military action against Damascus under a UN mandate.
"What happened in Houla and elsewhere are brutal massacres which even monsters would not have carried out," the Syrian leader said.
"The masks have fallen and the international role in the Syrian events is now obvious," he said in his first address to the assembly since a May 7 parliamentary election, adding the polls were the perfect response "to the criminal killers and those who finance them".
Assad also paid tribute to civilian and military "martyrs" of the violence in Syria, saying their blood was not shed in vain.
"We are not facing a political problem but a project to destroy the country," Assad said, adding there would be "no dialogue" with opposition groups which "seek foreign intervention."
"Terrorism cannot be part of the political process," said Assad, who had last spoken in public in January.
In Sunday's speech which lasted more than an hour, he dismissed the impact in Syria of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, saying those demonstrating and fighting against his rule were paid to do so.
"Some are unemployed, they receive money for participating in demonstrations," he said.
On Saturday, violence in Syria killed 89 people, including 57 soldiers, the largest number of casualties the military has suffered in a single day since an uprising began in March 2011, a watchdog said.
As Arab leaders called for UN action, France, which spearheaded a NATO air assault against Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi last year, said it has not excluded military intervention in Syria.
France "has not excluded military intervention" in Syria, but only under a UN mandate, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, while urging Russia to drop its backing for Assad.
He said that "the Russians have to understand that the future of Syria is not to be considered" with Assad still in power.
"Until then we have to increase pressure, increase sanctions, mobilise public opinion and isolate (Assad) as much as possible -- and make those who still support him lose interest, and I'm thinking of Russia of course," Le Drian said.
Assad 'maneuvering' to gain time
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood firm against growing pressure over Moscow's position on Syria, opposing foreign military intervention and raising doubts about sanctions.
Human Rights Watch singled out Russian firm Rosoboronexport in a statement that called on the international community to stop signing deals with firms that provide arms to Assad's regime which could make them "an accomplice to crimes against humanity."
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal accused Assad of "manoeuvring" to gain time.
"Every initiative has been accepted by the Syrian regime and was not implemented. This is a way used by the regime to gain time," Prince Saud told reporters in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in a joint news conference with UN chief Ban ki-moon.
"He is playing for time and maneuvering," he said, referring to Assad.
Washington and Moscow agreed on the need to work together on Syria, a US official said following a phone conversation between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Her message to him was: 'We've got to start working together to help the Syrians with Syria's political transition strategy. And I want our people to work together on ideas in Moscow, Europe, in Washington, wherever we need to'."
Specter of all-out war growing
At a meeting in Doha, international peace envoy Kofi Annan warned: "The specter of an all-out war with a worrying sectarian dimension grows by the day."
"The situation is complex and it takes everyone involved in the conflict to act responsibly if the violence is to stop. But the first responsibility lies in the Syrian government and President Assad," he said.
The Arab League's ministerial committee on Syria has called on Annan to set a deadline for the terms of his peace initiative to be met.
Chapter VII outlines action the Security Council might take, including military force, in response to threats to international peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression.
Tensions from Syria have also spilled across into neighboring Lebanon, where clashes between pro- and anti-Damascus gunmen left 14 dead and 48 wounded over the weekend in the northern city of Tripoli, security officials said.
The Observatory says as many as 2,300 of the more than 13,400 people killed in Syria since the uprising erupted in March 2011 have died since the so-called ceasefire began on April 12.