Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the nation Monday, blaming “saboteurs” for anti-government protests that erupted in mid-March.
In his third major speech since protests began, President Assad said that while Syria should deal with popular demands for reform, a “small faction” was exploiting these grievances, the BBC reports.
"What is happening today has nothing to do with reform, it has to do with vandalism," Assad said. "There can be no development without stability, and no reform through vandalism."
(From GlobalPost in Syria: The real voices of Syria's uprising)
The Syrian president, speaking to supporters at Damascus University in a televised address, urged Syrians who had fled to Turkey to return "as soon as possible."
"The state will protect them. It is there to protect them," Assad said.
Thousands of people fled a military attack on a border town in northwest Syria. More than 10,000 Syrian refugees are now living in tent cities in Turkey.
Rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed in protests since mid-March, and 10,000 people have been detained. More than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed.
In his latest address, President Assad expressed regret about the protest deaths, and said that committees were being established to create a plan for reform and to examine the constitution.
On Sunday, opposition activists announced the creation of a council to lead the struggle against the regime, which has ruled Syria for 40 years.
"We announce the creation of a National Council to lead the Syrian revolution, comprising all communities and representatives of national political forces inside and outside Syria," spokesman Jamil Saib said, according to Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, the European Union is preparing to expand sanctions against Assad's regime. On Monday, EU foreign ministers adopted a draft resolution that says the EU is "actively" preparing to "expand its restrictive measures by additional designations," AFP reports.