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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Assad Addresses the Nation

Iranian cartoonist Maya Neyestani on Syrian President Assad's New Year

See also Syria 1st-Hand: Fire and Ice in the Refugee Camp
Saturday's Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Back to the War of Attrition

2055 GMT: Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out a general amnesty for Kurdish insurgents on Sunday but said Turkey official would continue to talk to the detained leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

Erdogan's chief adviser said last week that the officials had been discussing disarmament with Ocalan, after decades of armed struggle for Kurdish independence, and on Thursday two Kurdish lawmakers paid a rare visit to the PKK leader in his island prison.

Erdogan said Turkey was taking a two-pronged approach, with the State intelligence agency meeting Ocalan: "Talks with Ocalan is not a new process....I have said before that we will negotiate with (Kurdish) politicians and struggle against terrorism."

The Prime Minister said, "General amnesty for those who have been involved in terrorist activities is out of the question. House confinement for (Ocalan) is also out of the question."

2035 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordination Committees report 91 people killed today, including 27 in Damascus and its suburbs, 15 in Aleppo Province, 14 in Daraa Province, and 12 in Homs Province.

2025 GMT: Palestine. West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has warned that the Government is in "extreme jeopardy" because of the unprecedented financial crisis, with Israel withholding tax revenues and Arab countries failing to send hundreds of millions of dollars in promised aid.

Fayyad said the Palestinian Authority has reached the point of not being able to pay the salaries of about 150,000 Government employees, Fayyad said. He added that the number of Palestinian poor will double to 50% of the population of roughly 4 million if the crisis continues.

"The status quo is not sustainable," Fayyad declared, with the Authority on the "verge of being completely incapacitated".

Fayyad said he managed to pay half the November salaries by getting another bank loan, using as collateral Arab League promises of future support. He said he cannot pay the rest of the November salaries, let alone start thinking about December wages.

The Palestinian Authority already owes local banks more than $1.3 billion and cannot get more loans. It also owes hundreds of millions of dollars to private businesses, including suppliers to hospitals, some of whom have stopped doing business with the Government.

1925 GMT: Syria. Tim Marshall of Sky News reports on the disappearance --- probably into detention --- of Zaidoun al-Zoabi, a dean at the European College in Damascus.

1915 GMT: Egypt. Back from a Sunday to find the Central Bank reporting that foreign currency reserves stand at $15.014 billion, enough to cover just three months' worth of imports.

The Bank said last month that current reserve levels represent a "critical minimum". Reserves were down slightly --- by $26 million --- from November.

Reserves have fallen by more than 50% from $36 billion before the January 2011 uprising. Causes include significant cuts in foreign investments and tourism.

On Sunday, 10 new ministers were introduced in a Cabinet shake-up aimed at improving the Government's handling of the struggling economy and the rush on dollars by worried Egyptians.

1445 GMT: Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking before today's Cabinet meeting, said a new, fortified barrier along Israel's border with Egypt is nearly complete, and "we intend to stretch an identical fence, with some necessary changes due to the different conditions, along the Golan Heights", the area of Syria occupied by Israel since 1967.

Netanyahu continued, "We know that on the other side of our border with Syria today, the Syrian army has backed off, and global jihad operatives have taken its place. We must therefore protect this border from infiltrations and terror, as we have successfully been doing along the Sinai border."

1434 GMT: Syria. The opposition National Coalition immediately rejected the President's speech, with spokesman Walid Bunni saying, "Assad simply wanted, with the initiative he proposed, to cut the road to reaching a political solution that may result from the forthcoming American-Russian meeting with [United Nations envoy Lakhdar) Brahimi, which the opposition would not accept unless he and his regime leave."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was also dismissive:

His remarks are just repetitions of what he's said all along. They are the same promises he made to us. As Assad no longer has the representative authority over the Syrian people, his words have lost persuasiveness....A transition period needs to be completed swiftly through talks with representatives of the Syrian nation.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague offered his reaction on Twitter: "Assad Speech beyond hypocritical. Deaths, violence and oppression engulfing Syria are his own making, empty promises of reform fool no one."

1414 GMT: Egypt. The trial of steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz and six officials, including former Minister of Industry Ibrahem Mohamadein, has been adjourned to 6 March.

The defendants face charges of profiteering and gross squandering of public funds. Prosecutors allege that Mohamedein illegaly exempted Ezz from dues of more than $100 million on his acquisition of majority shares at the formerly State-owned Ezz Dekheila Steel Company.

Ezz is also accused of making illicit gains of about $750 million while in political office from 2001 to 2011, selling EZDK's products to other companies he owns at lower-than-cost price.

In October 2012, Ezz was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined LE19.3 billion ($3.1 billion) after being found guilty of money laundering. Earlier in the year, he was sentenced to 10 years and fined on graft charges, but the sentence was overturned on appeal in December.

Meanwhile, a criminal court revoked the Illicit Gains Authority (IGA's) decision to freeze the assets of tycoon and Mubarak crony Ibrahim Kamel.

Kamel was detained in October on charges of illegal profiteering and unlawfully amassing large fortunes. He posted bail in November.

Kamel is the chairman of the KATO investment conglomerate, one of the largest privately-owned corporations in Egypt. It functions primarily as a holding company with activities in construction, tourism, and real estate development.

1409 GMT: Syria. Wounded being helped after a mortar hit a minibus in Sekkari in Aleppo:

1359 GMT: Syria. State news agency SANA has published a English-language transcript of President Assad's speech under the headline, "Out of Womb of Pain, Hope Should Be Begotten; From Suffering, Important Solutions Rise."

1129 GMT: Syria. Reuters emphasises that Assad's offer for dialogue and a "reconciliation conference" extends only to the limited range of opposition groups inside Syria acknowledged by the regime --- it excludes the internationally-recognised opposition National Coalition, placing it with "those who have betrayed Syria".

1056 GMT: Syria. Assad concludes and is immediately mobbed by supporters.

1055 GMT: Syria. Assad seems to be moving to a conclusion, " We will be stronger. We will not give up our rights We will defend ourselves internally."

He adds references to the Golan Heights --- occupied by Israel since 1967 --- and Palestine: "We will support resistance."

1049 GMT: Syria. An interesting claim from Assad --- he pays tribute to the "brave men" of Ras al-Ain, a town on the Turkish border which reportedly fell to insurgents in the autumn.

Assad indicates, to the contrary, that the town held out against Turkish-supported terrorists.

Assad salutes the army and halts, as the audience gives a loud chant of support. The same act is repeated for the security forces.

1045 GMT: Syria. Assad is repeating theme of "national reconcilation" without further detail. Instead, he declares, "Syria accepts advice but not ultimata" from outside.

Another pause for chants from the audience.

1035 GMT: Syria. Assad announces plans for a "referendum", without details, and an "expanded Government" to implement a National Charter. He says there will be agreement on an election law, measures for civil rights, and reconciliation with an amnesty, albeit not for those who have committed violence against the State.

Assad then returns to the theme of fighting terrorism, to loud acclamation from the crowd in the Opera House: "A country that is thousands of years old cannot be defeated".

1032 GMT: Syria. Assad declares, "We are always stretching our hand for dialogue" with anyone who approaches with "patriotism and principles".

1025 GMT: Syria. Nothing new in the last 10 minutes of the speech, with Assad --- or at least the translator --- rambling about the necessity of the "security option" versus "terrorism", as he looks for a "partner for national dialogue".

1015 GMT: Syria. President Assad is now making his television speech, warning of the crisis threatening the country and the region.

He opens --- unlike in speeches earlier in the 23-month conflict --- with recognition of the misery and a "black cloud of sadness": " "I look at the eyes of the Syrian children and I do not see innocent faces....Pain and suffering is spread all over Syria."

Assad swings at the insurgency; "Is this a revolution of the people? These are a bunch of criminals," soon escalating to "terrorists who carry the ideology of al Qaeda, servants who know nothing but language of slaughter".

Then he blames foreign enemies "trying to weaken Syria with money and arms" who "have written history with the blood of Arab people", declaring that Syrians will stand firm against them: "We are stronger than them, and we will teach them a lesson."

Assad continues with emphasis on Syria's sovereignty, thanking China, Russia, and Iran for supporting Syrian "self-determination".

1010 GMT: Turkey. Thousands of books banned over decades have been taken off the restricted list.

In July, the parliament adopted a bill stipulating that any decision taken before 2012 to block the sale and distribution of published work would be voided if no court chose to confirm the ruling within six months. The deadline came and went Saturday and no such judicial decisions were recorded.

Among the books are works such as the "Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the writings of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, a comic book, an atlas, a report on the state of human rights in Turkey, and an essay on the Kurds.

0950 GMT: Kuwait. An opposition youth has been sentenced to two years in jail for messages on Twitter deemed offensive to the Emir.

Rashed al-Enezi was immediately arrested by police and taken to jail, said Mohammad al-Humaidi of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights.

Dozens of Tweeters, activists and former opposition lawmakers wface similar charges amid protests and a regime clampdown before and after December elections.

0815 GMT: Egypt. Farouk Hosni, Minister of Culture in the Mubarak reigme, has been acquitted of embezzlement LE9 million (about $1.4 million).

Hosni said, “Only weak souls make illicit gains,” and argued that he could have embezzled far more, as he oversaw more than 40 museums.

0800 GMT: Libya. The head of the General National Conference, Mohamed Magarief,says that he survived an assassination attempt on Saturday during a visit to the southern city of Sabha.

Magarief told State TV that gunmen attacked the hotel where he was staying. The ensuring battle between Magarief's bodyguards and the attackers lasted for three hours and left three of his guards wounded.

He said an investigation had begun but there had been yet because of the "tribal culture" of the region.

0630 GMT: Syria. President Assad will address the nation this morning on television about "latest developments in Syria and the region". 

State media gave no further details about Assad's first speech in months, but I am expecting no surprises, such as a detailed plan for transition or a change in the line about the civil war. Instead, the President will repeat standard formulas about the need to protect the Syrian people against foreign-backed terrorists and his defence of the State against efforts to break it up. There may be some token references to a reform process, with nominal elections.

As the regime continued bombardment of Damascus suburbs, the Local Coordination Committees reported 79 deaths on Saturday, including six children and 10 women. Of the deaths, 35 were in Damascus and its suburbs and 18 in Daraa Province.

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