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Syrian gunmen kill two after Assad speech - activists

MYT 12:01:15 AM

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad shot dead two people in Syria on Monday, activists said, hours after he dismissed Western calls to step down and warned that any military action against his country would backfire.

Syria's President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Syrian state television in Damascus August 21, 2011, in this handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. (REUTERS/Sana/Handout)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said loyalist gunmen known as 'shabbiha' who were celebrating after Assad's comments on Syrian television opened fire in Masyaf, west of the city of the central city of Hama, killing two people and wounding four. They also attacked shops belonging to Assad opponents, it said.

Assad faces growing Western calls to step down over his crackdown on more than five months of pro-democracy protests in which the United Nations says around 2,000 civilians have died.

No country has proposed the kind of action against Syria which NATO forces have carried out in support of Libyan rebels seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi. But the West has called on Assad to step down and Washington has imposed new sanctions.

Assad said Syria would not bow to external pressure, which he said could only affect "a president made in the United States and a subservient people who get their orders from outside".

"As for the threat of a military action ... any action against Syria will have greater consequences (on those who carry it out), greater than they can tolerate," he said in an interview broadcast by Syrian television on Sunday.

Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, has regional influence because of its alliance with Iran and its role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005. It also has influence in Iraq and supports militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

"As for the security situation (it) has become more militant in the recent weeks," Assad said. "We are capable of dealing with it ... I am not worried."

Assad also said he expected a parliamentary election to be held in February after a series of reforms that would let political groups other than his Baath party take part.

The opposition has dismissed Assad's promised political reforms and many opposition figures have rejected his call for a national dialogue, saying there can be no discussion while security forces continue to kill protesters.

OPPOSITION GATHER IN TURKEY

Seeking to unify their fragmented movement, opposition figures have gathered in Turkey to nominate a broad-based council to support the uprising.

"The discussions are focusing on moving away from quotas toward a more merit-based council," Professor Wael Merza, one of the delegates, told Reuters. "We expect to reach consensus on the list of names by the end of this week."

Similar initiatives in the past have failed to produce a robust umbrella group to unite the opposition, fragmented by 41 years of autocratic rule by Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad.

Assad's government has blamed armed groups for the violence and has said more than 500 soldiers and police have been killed since the unrest erupted in March.

State news agency SANA said 17 members of Syria's security forces were buried on Saturday and Sunday, some of them killed by gunmen in Homs and the southern province of Deraa.

"When Assad says he is prepared to deal with the Syrian uprising he means he is going to kill more protesters," Moulhem al-Droubi, of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, said on Sunday.

Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.

Assad sent tanks and troops into some of Syria's biggest cities to crush dissent during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started on Aug. 1, prompting Arab states to break months of silence and call for an end to the bloodshed.

On Friday, Assad's forces killed 34 people, including four children, in Homs and Deraa, where the popular revolt began in March, as well as in suburbs of Damascus and the ancient desert town of Palmyra, activists said.

A U.N. team arrived in Syria on Saturday to assess humanitarian needs in the country, a U.N. official said. The United Nations has sought access for the team since May.

The team will "assess the humanitarian situation and condition of basic social services and identify initial assistance needs that could be addressed through a rapid response," the official added.

She did not say which parts of the country the team would visit, but said the mission would continue until Thursday.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation, told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that all military and police operations had ceased, but activists say dozens of protesters have been killed since then.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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