Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the "abominable" massacre of more than 100 people in Houla, saying even monsters could not carry out such acts, and promised a 15-month-old crisis would end soon if Syrians pulled together.
Mr. al-Assad repeated earlier pledges to enforce a crackdown on opponents he says are terrorists carrying out a foreign conspiracy, while offering dialogue with opposition figures who had avoided armed conflict or outside backing.
His remarks were at odds with those of United Nations peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous – that army shelling killed many Houla victims and that pro-Assad militiamen probably killed the others, many of them women and children.
President al-Assad made his comments in a speech to parliament, a rare public appearance one day after international envoy Kofi Annan said the spectre of all-out civil war was growing in Syria and the world needed to see action, not words, from Syria's leader.
In his hour-long address, Mr. al-Assad made no specific response to Mr. Annan's plea for bold steps to end the conflict, and regional power Saudi Arabia accused him of using the Annan peace plan to buy time for his military offensive against the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had urged Russia to push harder for "political transition" in Syria, language which Washington uses to mean ending Mr. al-Assad's rule.
Thousands of people have been killed in a crackdown on protests which erupted in March last year and have become increasingly militarized, destabilizing neighbouring Lebanon and raising fears of regional turmoil.
"This crisis is not an internal crisis. It is an external war carried out by internal elements," said a relaxed-looking President al-Assad. "If we work together, I confirm that the end to this situation is near."
Dismissing worldwide criticism, which includes accusations from UN investigators that both government and rebel forces have committed gross human-rights violations, the 46-year-old former eye doctor drew parallels with his earlier profession.
When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound, Mr. al-Assad asked, "do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood?' Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
Last month's massacre in Houla of 108 people, mostly women and children, triggered global outrage and warnings that Syria's relentless bloodshed – undimmed by Mr. Annan's April 12 ceasefire deal – could engulf the Middle East.
Mr. al-Assad said the Houla killings and other bloody incidents were "ugly and abominable" massacres. "In truth even monsters do not perpetrate what we have seen, especially the Houla massacre," he said.
Ms. Clinton told reporters in Sweden that she made clear in a telephone conversation this weekend with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow must do its part to help Syria turn the page after four decades under the Assad family control.
"My message to the foreign minister was very simple and straightforward," she said. "We all have to intensify our efforts to achieve a political transition and Russia has to be at the table helping that to occur."
Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions which could have led to UN action against Mr. al-Assad, and has backed his assertion that militants are to blame for Syria's bloodshed.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who has called for international efforts to arm Syrian rebels, said Mr. al-Assad was using Mr. Annan's peace plan to buy time to crush rebels.
He also accused Damascus of stoking sectarian tensions which recently spilled over into Lebanon, where Syria maintained a military presence for nearly three decades until it withdrew in 2005 under international pressure.
Fifteen people were killed in clashes on Saturday in the Mediterranean city of Tripoli, the worst violence to shake Lebanon since the start of Syria's uprising.
"What happened in Tripoli is without doubt a continuation of what is happening in Syria," Prince Saud said. "We have noticed for some time that the regime in Syria is trying to turn this into a sectarian struggle".
The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the crackdown since protests against the Assad regime began nearly 15 months ago. Syria blames the violence on foreign-backed Islamist militants it says have killed more than 2,600 soldiers and security force members.