Violence in Syria rages ahead of Assad speech

A boy is seen through a car window as he rides on the back of a truck in the streets of Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. The revolt against President Bashar Assad that started in March 2011 began with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations recent estimate. (AP Photo/ Andoni Lubaki)

BEIRUT (AP) — Fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces raged across the country hours before President Bashar Assad is expected to address the nation on Sunday in his first public appearance in two months, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels fighting to topple the Assad regime have clashed with troops in the southern province of Daraa, the birthplace of the uprising in March 2011. Violence also raged in opposition strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus, which rebels are using as bases to assail the government's heavy defenses in the capital. The regime has responded with a withering assault including barrages by artillery and warplanes.

Assad last spoke publicly in November, vowing to Russia Today TV that he won't step down despite continued opposition to his rule and international sanctions aimed at isolating his regime. In the Nov. 8 interview, the embattled president dismissed suggestions that he will leave his country as civil war is approaching his seat of power in Damascus, saying he would "live and die in Syria."

It was not clear what new initiative, if any, Assad could announce during his speech. In each of his previous speeches and interviews, the president has dug in his heels saying his regime is fighting a war against terrorists.

Diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian crisis have failed so far to bring an end to the bloodshed, although the international community continues to push for a peaceful settlement.

The president of the U.N. Security Council said Thursday there are important developments in efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the 21-month conflict in Syria and there could be another U.S.-Russia meeting with international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi next week.

Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov both said after their meeting last week that the Syrian crisis can only be settled through talks, while admitting that neither the government nor the opposition has shown a desire to compromise. Neither official hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the two sides to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks about a political transition.

But Lavrov said Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of stepping down — a key opposition demand — and it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise. Russia is a close ally of the Syrian government, and has shielded it from punitive measures at the U.N.

The revolt started with peaceful protests but morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 60,000 people, according to a recent United Nations recent estimate.