Syrian President Bashar Assad spoke publicly for the first time in months Tuesday, pledging to crush the "foreign conspiracy" seeking to undermine his rule and sharply criticizing the Arab League for helping to isolate his country.

He said he had no plans to resign his position or dissolve the government, and vowed to respond harshly to threats against his regime.

"Our priority now is to regain security, which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron fist," Assad said from Damascus University. "We will not be lenient with those who work with outsiders against the country."

Assad also took aim at the Arab League during his nearly two-hour speech — his first since agreeing last month to a peace plan from the Cairo-based group — claiming it failed to protect Arab interests.

The Arab League plan calls for the government to stop killing protesters, pull its heavy weapons from cities, free political prisoners and allow human rights organizations and foreign journalists into the country.

More than 150 foreign observers have travelled to Syria to determine whether the government is complying with those terms. Several of the observers were lightly injured in an incident Tuesday, Kuwait's official news agency reported. Video posted online by activists showed a crowd of Assad supporters swarming a white vehicle similar to those used by the observers.

Syria agreed to the peace plan on Dec. 19, but the violence has continued. Activists estimate that 450 people have died in confrontations with the military since Dec. 21.

Assad denied that any order had been given to fire on protesters, other than in self-defence. He said there was no "coverup" of any killing and claimed that some people had been arrested by the state where there was overwhelming evidence.

Syria keeps a close watch on foreign journalists

The CBC's Susan Ormiston, who arrived in Damascus earlier Tuesday, reported on CBC's News Network that she found people there intensely interested in Assad's speech.

"Everywhere we stopped on our way into Damascus, people were huddled around their TV sets, watching the long address from the president. He has not been all that public in the last few weeks … talking very rarely."

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Demonstrators roamed Damascus Tuesday chanting pro-regime slogans in English. (Margaret Evans/ CBC)

After months of closing Syria to outsiders, the regime has decided to allow a few teams of outside journalists into the country, and two CBC correspondents are among them.

However, the regime keeps a close eye on foreign reporters, assigning minders to all foreign journalists.

CBC's Margaret Evans reported from Damascus Tuesday.

She also noted that a pro-government protest was underway when the CBC News team arrived at its lodgings.

"We turned up at our hotel and there was, rather conveniently, a small demonstration of people in front of the hotel — pro-Assad supporters basically echoing what he was talking about in his speech," she said.

Arab League monitors are still in Damascus, Ormiston reported: "There is a tension and conflict between the Syrian government and the Arab League monitors, and the opposition hasn't been very satisfied with their work either."

Assad vowed not to step down, insisting that he still has his people's support. "We will declare victory soon," he said. "When I leave this post, it will be also based upon the people's wishes."

Family dynasty

Assad, 46, inherited the regime from the iron grip of his father Hafaz Assad. The younger Assad at times appeared to be moving toward a more tolerant approach to waves of protest that reached his country in the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia and spread through Egypt and Libya in 2011. A British-trained ophthalmologist, he had seemed the least likely member of his family to be running a vicious military crackdown.

The president has made few public appearances since the anti-government uprising began in March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. The regime's crackdown on dissent has killed thousands and led to international isolation and sanctions.

Assad has blamed a foreign conspiracy and media fabrications for the unrest — allegations that the opposition and most observers dismiss. The regime has barred most foreign news outlets and prevented independent reporting.

The 10-month crackdown on dissent has killed an estimated 5,000 people, according to the UN, and has prompted international sanctions targeting the Assad regime.

Activists said Tuesday that Syrian security forces shot dead at least 10 people in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, despite the presence of an Arab observer mission in the area.

In the capital of Damascus on Monday, thousands held a prayer service for those killed since the uprising began in March. Christian and Muslim religious leaders attended the service, and throngs packed the city's Holy Cross Church, its yards and a nearby street.

"Enough killings in our beloved Syria," the country's top Sunni clergyman, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, told the crowd at the prayer service. His son was shot dead in October.

CBC journalists are inside Syria this week, where few foreign journalists have been permitted to work. Although their activities are monitored and they are constantly accompanied by government representatives, their reports are not censored or otherwise edited by outside agencies before being published.

With files from The Associated Press