Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the killing of thousands of anti-government protesters, telling a U.S. journalist he does not control the forces implementing his country's brutal crackdown.
In a rare interview to air Wednesday, President Assad tells ABC News that although he is president he does not "own the country, so they're not my forces."
The Syrian leader is quoted as saying there is "a big difference" between having "a policy to crack down and having mistakes committed by some officials."
Prior to the broadcast of the interview, an ABC news reporter brought up Assad's comments at the U.S. State Department briefing. Spokesman Mark Toner responded by saying there is no indication Assad "is doing anything other than cracking down in the most brutal fashion on a peaceful opposition movement."
Toner said he finds it "ludicrous" that the Syrian president is "attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game (charade) and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country."
Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a rare meeting with seven Syrian opposition leaders in Geneva as the U.S. and French ambassadors returned to Damascus after an extended absence.
Clinton told senior members of the Syrian National Council - all exiles in Europe - that a democratic transition is more than removing Assad's regime. She said "it means setting the country on the path of the rule of law and protecting the universal rights of all citizens, regardless of sect or ethnicity or gender."
The top U.S. diplomat said the opposition understood Syrian minorities needed to be reassured they would be better off "under a regime of tolerance and freedom." The SNC also outlined a transition plan involving the handover of power to a provisional government and the departure of Assad, his family and close aides.
The Syrian leader is a member of the minority Shi'ite Alawite sect, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The country is also home to a number of other religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Kurds.
Meanwhile, Syria's sectarian violence escalated sharply Monday, with activists reporting more than 50 deaths as the central city of Homs was convulsed by a series of kidnappings, random shootings and revenge killings. Thirty-four of the dead were shot execution style, their bodies dumped in the streets.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called it "one of the deadliest days since the start of the Syrian Revolution."
Assad's government received words of support from Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Tuesday.
During a speech in Beirut marking the Shi'ite ritual of Ashura, Nasrallah lashed out against the United States, accusing it of seeking to destroy Syria. He said he is in favor of Assad's plans for reform.
The United States and its allies have been trying to isolate the Assad government in response to its nine-month crackdown on protests.
The United Nations estimates that unrest-related violence in Syria has killed more than 4,000 people since the uprising began in March.