Syria's Foreign Ministry is backpedaling fast after President Bashar al-Assad bluntly refused in American television interview to take responsibility for ordering his forces to crack down on anti-government protesters over the past nine months.
According to the English-language Al Arabiya news service, Syria's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, "A U.S. State Department spokesman has distorted the statements of President [Bashar] al-Assad."
One minute later, the news service followed with a second alert on the Twitter social networking site: "The Syrian Foreign Ministry denies that Assad said he is not responsible for his country's forces."
Both tweets came as news was breaking around the world that Assad had categorically refused to take responsibility for the brutality of his forces and had literally laughed at the idea that the United Nations has any credibility as an institution.
Assad, whose remarks were aired Wednesday in an exclusive interview with veteran journalist Barbara Walters on ABC News, told her, "There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials. There was no command to kill or be brutal."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner had been quoted in U.S. media following the Assad interview as saying it was "ludicrous" the Syrian president was "attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game, and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country."
The U.N. Human Rights Council has charged Assad with crimes against humanity, saying that he is directly responsible for the actions of the troops he commands as president and the crimes they commit under his government.
More than 4,000 people have died in government crackdowns since March, according to the United Nations, and thousands more have been wounded, including many who were tortured after being arbitrarily arrested and detained. Among them were close to 200 children, according to the most recent figures. A number have also subsequently "disappeared."