An image grab taken from Syrian state television shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressing the nation from Damascus University in the Syrian capital. -AFP Photo

DAMASCUS: President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday that dialogue could lead to a new constitution and even the end of his Baath party's monopoly on power, but that he refused to reform Syria under “chaos.”

His remarks were condemned by pro-democracy activists who vowed that the “revolution” now in its fourth month, must go on.

Assad spoke as European foreign ministers prepared to beef up sanctions on the embattled president and Britain demanded that he “reform or step aside.” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Assad had reached a “point of no return” by brutally repressing protesters.

After widespread condemnation of his regime's crackdown, Assad said in a televised speech at Damascus University that the country was at a “turning point.”

He said dialogue was under way that could lead to a new constitution and raised the possibility of elections and an end to the ruling Baath party's dominance, a key opposition demand, while warning the economy was on the verge of collapse.

“We can say that national dialogue is the slogan of the next stage,” Assad said. “The national dialogue could lead to amendments of the constitution or to a new constitution.”Reform was “a total commitment in the interest of the nation,” he added.

Assad offered condolences to the families of “martyrs” from the unrest rocking the country since mid-March, but said there could be “no development without stability, no reform in the face of sabotage and chaos.”

”We make a distinction between those (with legitimate grievances) and the saboteurs who represent a small group which has tried to exploit the goodwill of the Syrian people for its own ends,” said Assad.

His third speech to the nation since the protests broke out was buoyed by a Russian pledge to block Western moves against him at the United Nations.

Witnesses and opposition activists said the speech was followed by protests in the northern city of Aleppo, in the flashpoint province of Idlib in the northwest, the central regions of Homs and Hama and in Damascus suburbs.

“The protesters condemned the speech which branded them as saboteurs, extremists,” the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP by telephone.

“The demonstrators are calling for freedom and dignity.” Abdel Rahman said authorities arrested 60 demonstrators in Aleppo over the past 24 hours.

According to Abdel Rahman's group, the violence has so far claimed the lives of 1,310 civilians and 341 security force members.

Opposition activists said Assad's speech failed to specify concrete steps, namely the pullout of troops from besieged cities, and only deepened the crisis.

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