BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad has denied ordering a deadly crackdown in Syria, saying "no government in the world kills its people unless it's led by a crazy person."
In an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters, the Syrian leader acknowledged that mistakes had been made but maintained "there was no command to kill or be brutal."
"There's a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials," he said, according to excerpts released by ABC News before the interview was to air Wednesday night. "There is a big difference."
His comments came at a time of escalating violence in Syria, where army defectors and others have taken up arms against security forces that activists and residents say are firing at peaceful demonstrations, torturing and killing detainees and using tanks against opposition strongholds. Opposition activists reported 15 people killed Wednesday, a claim that could not be independently verified.
The United Nations' top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has accused government forces of gross violations, saying more than 4,000 people have been killed since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, including more than 300 children.
Assad blamed the bloodshed on criminals, religious extremists and terrorists sympathetic to al-Qaida who he said were blending in with peaceful protesters.
"Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa," he said. More than 1,100 soldiers and police are among the dead, according to his government.