REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- President Bashar Assad has denied ordering a deadly crackdown in Syria, saying “no government in the world kills its people unless it's led by a crazy person.”
In an interview airing Wednesday with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Assad acknowledged that mistakes had been made by some individuals but maintained “there was no command to kill or be brutal.”
“There’s a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials,” he said. “There is a big difference.”
His comments came at a time of escalating violence in Syria, where army defectors and others have taken up arms against security forces that activists and residents say are firing at peaceful demonstrations, torturing and killing detainees and using tanks against opposition strongholds.
The United Nations’ top human rights official has accused the government’s forces of gross violations, saying more than 4,000 people have been killed since the start of major anti-government protests in March, including more than 300 children.
Assad demanded to see evidence. "Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?" he asked.
He blamed the bloodshed on criminals, religious extremists and terrorists sympathetic to Al Qaeda who he said were blending in with peaceful protesters.
"Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa," he said. More than 1,100 soldiers and police are among the dead, according to his government.
Asked if he regretted the violence, Assad said he had tried his best to protect people.
“You feel sorry for the lives that have been lost,” he said. “But you don't feel guilty when you don't kill people."
Asked about the interview Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner accused Assad of dodging responsibility.
“I find it ludicrous attempting to hide behind some sort of shell game but also some sort of claim that he doesn't exercise authority in his own country,” he said. “There’s just no indication that he’s doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement."
Toner was referring to a comment Assad made in which he seemed to suggest he did not control Syria’s security forces.
"I don't own them, I am president, I don't own the country, so they are not my forces," Assad said.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry, however, said Assad's words had been taken out of context and called Toner’s comment “nonprofessional” and “inexact,” according to the official Syrian Arab New Agency. The report did not elaborate.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: A government supporter waves a Syrian flag in front of portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a protest against sanctions in Damascus last week. Credit: Muzaffar Salman / Associated Press