- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad acknowledged that his security forces made mistakes in the deadly crackdown on protesters but suggested Wednesday that the current “crisis” was nearing its end even as attacks raged.

The comments by Mr. Assad — carried in the private Al-Watan newspaper — appear designed to portray confidence and defiance as international pressures mount over Syria’s brutal offensive against a two-month uprising challenging Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule.

There were no signs of Assad’s forces easing the offensives despite the boasts of gaining the upper hand.

Tanks shelled a western border town that has been the focus of attacks since last week. Human rights groups said troops used heavy machine guns to attack a neighborhood in the central city of Homs, which has been a hotbed of protests.

Mr. Assad has come under growing condemnation for the attacks. Western governments, including the United States, have called for stronger economic clampdowns on Syria.

Mr. Assad was bolstered by a longtime ally, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow will not support any U.N. resolutions or sanctions against Syria.

Meanwhile, a call by protesters for a nationwide general strike went widely unheeded in a possible sign that Mr. Assad’s regime still has support in the business community and its intimidation tactics could be undermining the uprising.

Mr. Assad was quoted Wednesday as saying the country’s security forces have made mistakes during the uprising and blaming poorly trained police officers at least in part for a crackdown that has killed more than 850 people over the past two months.

Mr. Assad’s comments downplayed the extent of the violence in the crackdown, but they were a rare acknowledgment of shortcomings within Syria’s powerful security agencies. He said thousands of police officers are receiving new training and that the “crisis” was nearing an end.

In western Syria, witnesses said the army shelled the border town of Talkalakh and security forces were making arrests. Activists say at least 27 people have been killed since last week in Talkalakh, a town largely seen as an opposition stronghold.

A resident in Talkalakh said it was impossible to know how many had died there.

“They are bombing us with tanks; it’s been going on for days,” he said in a phone interview.

“Security forces are making random arrests; there isn’t one security apparatus that they have not sent to the town,” he said on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Syrians fleeing to Lebanon in recent days have described horrific scenes of execution-style slayings and bodies in the streets in Talkalakh, which reportedly has been encircled by security forces. More than 5,000 people have crossed a shallow river to the Lebanese side of the border.

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