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UPDATE 3-Syrians brush off Assad speech as fighting rages

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* Fighting reported near Damascus airport road

* Assad's "peace plan" rejected at home and abroad

* U.S. troops arrive in Turkey ahead of Patriots

By Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon

BEIRUT, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Fighting raged across Syria on
Monday with clashes reported just a few miles from where
President Bashar al-Assad had unveiled a "peace plan" that
Syrians on both sides said would do nothing to end the country's
21-month-old uprising.

Hours after Assad addressed cheering loyalists at the
Damascus Opera House on Sunday in his first public speech in
months, fighting erupted near the road to the city's
international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
said.

The opposition-linked group said artillery hit the district
of Aqraba, 3 miles (5 km) from the Opera House. Fighting
continued all night and into Monday around the capital, as well
as in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, it said.

In central Syria, the towns of Taybet Imam and Halfaya were
bombarded with aerial strikes and artillery, said Abu Faisal, an
activist speaking over the internet from Taybet Imam.

"Every four to five minutes, we hear the burst from a
rocket. We cannot get any wounded out because we are essentially
under siege by the shelling," he said, adding that many
civilians had fled. Taybet Imam sits on an entrance to Syria's
main north-south highway, close to the central city of Hama.

The government restricts access by international media and
the accounts could not be verified.

Damascus residents said Assad's speech, which offered no
concessions to his foes, was met with celebratory gunfire in
pro-Assad neighbourhoods.

But even there, some saw no sign peace was closer: a
loyalist resident of southern Damascus reached by internet said
the speech was eloquent but empty.

"It sounded more like gloating than making promises," said
the woman, who gave only her first name, Aliaa. "I agree with
the ideas but words are really just words until he takes some
action. He needs to do something. But even so, everything he
suggests now, it is too late, the rebels aren't going to stop."

"NO ONE CARES"

In the once-affluent district of Mezzeh, scene of several
bomb attacks, an Assad critic said people had more pressing
concerns than a TV speech. "Here, no one cares about this
speech. They care about food and electricity."

Another said few people had watched the speech and that
Assad's crackdown would not stop: "Military operations will
continue in full swing, and he is staying."

France, the United States, Britain and Turkey all said
Assad's speech, his first to an audience since June last year,
showed he had lost touch with reality after unrest that the
United Nations says has killed 60,000 people.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had harsh
words for Assad when she was asked whether the United States
regarded him as a rational actor and whether he was "evil."

"I don't think anybody who is guilty of the kinds of crimes
against your own people that he's guilty of could be considered
rational," Nuland told reporters in Washington. "I personally
consider what he's done evil."

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Assad on
Monday of "directing state terrorism".

"Bashar al-Assad's speech is further evidence of just how
far he has cut himself off from reality in order to justify his
repression of the Syrian people," French Foreign Ministry
spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

The plan described by the Syrian leader as a new peace
initiative proposed an army ceasefire only after rebels halt
their operations and summoned Syrians to mobilise for a war to
defend the state against "a puppet made by the West".

The United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was
disappointed that Assad's speech rejected the idea of a
transitional government to pave the way to new elections - a
central plank of a peace plan promoted by international envoy
Lakhdar Brahimi.

"NATIONAL PROGRAMME"

Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halki called on Monday for a
special cabinet meeting to implement the "national programme
announced by President Bashar al-Assad yesterday to solve the
crisis in Syria", the state news agency SANA said.

George Sabra, vice president of the opposition National
Coalition, said the putative peace plan "did not even deserve to
be called an initiative".

"We should see it rather as a declaration that he will
continue his war against the Syrian people," he told Reuters.

Assad's ally Iran defended the speech as offering a
"comprehensive political process". "This plan rejects violence
and terrorism and any foreign interference," Iranian Foreign
Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said.

There was no immediate response from Moscow, which has acted
as Assad's main protector on the diplomatic stage. Russian state
offices were quiet for the Orthodox Christmas holiday.

Syrian state television played up the speech, showing
footage of convoys of cars driving through main streets in
Damascus. People waving the Syrian flag leaned out of car
windows and some braved the cold and rain to walk alongside.

"It was a victorious speech that respects the martyred
Syrian soldiers," said one man on state TV, adding that his
brother had been killed fighting the opposition.

After six months of advances, rebels now control wide areas
of northern and eastern Syria, most of its border crossings with
Turkey and a crescent of Damascus suburbs.

Assad's government is still firmly entrenched in the capital
and controls most of the densely populated southwest, the
Mediterranean coast, the main north-south highway and military
bases countrywide. Its helicopters and jets are able to strike
rebel-held areas with impunity.

U.S. military cargo planes carrying equipment and personnel
arrived at the Incirlik air base in Turkey on Monday, part of a
deployment of NATO Patriot anti-missiles to bolster security
along Turkey's 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. Dutch
Patriot missile batteries bound for Turkey left an army base in
the Netherlands.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130107/update-3-syrians-brush-assad-speech-fighting-rages