Syrian forces fire on anti-Assad crowd in capital

AMMAN/BEIRUT Sat Feb 18, 2012 6:51pm EST

1 of 14. Demonstrators hold up Kurdish (R) and the Syrian independence flags during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli city, in this picture received February 18, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian security forces have fired on a huge protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, opposition activists said, shortly after a Chinese envoy appealed for a halt to 11 months of violence.

The shooting took place Saturday at the funerals of three youths killed a day earlier in an anti-Assad protest that was one of the biggest in the capital since a nationwide uprising started.

"They started firing at the crowd right after the burial," said a witness, speaking to Reuters in Amman by telephone.

People tried to flee and seek shelter in alleyways, he said.

The opposition Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said the gunfire near the cemetery had killed one mourner and wounded four, including a woman who was hit in the head. A shopkeeper told Reuters many protesters were arrested.

The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activit group, said security forces had killed 14 people in Damascus and other parts of the country Saturday, including five in the opposition stronghold of Homs. None of the figures could be verified independently.

Up to 30,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets in the capital's Mezze district, near the headquarters of Airforce Intelligence and that of the ruling Baath Party, witnesses said.

Footage of the funeral broadcast on the Internet showed women ululating to honor the victims. Mourners shouted: "We sacrifice our blood, our soul for you martyrs. One, one, one, the Syrian people are one."

YouTube footage from another Damascus suburb, Douma, showed several thousand protesters at the funerals of two people said to have been killed there by security forces. The bodies were carried though a sea of mourners waving pre-Baath Syrian flags.

Assad described the turmoil racking Syria as a ploy to split the country.

"What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region," he was quoted by Syrian state television as saying after meeting Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun.

CHINESE SUPPORT

Zhai appealed for an end to violence from all sides, including the government and opposition forces. But his comments for the most part amounted to a show of support against world condemnation of Assad's crackdown on the popular uprising.

The envoy said China backed Assad's plan for a referendum on February 26 followed by multi-party elections to resolve the crisis. The opposition and the West have dismissed the plan as a sham.

"China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect," he said.

The Chinese Embassy said Zhai held separate meetings with moderate opposition figures Qadri Jamil, Louay Hussein and Hassan Abdulazim, but gave no details.

"We told the Chinese envoy that most of the opposition accept a dialogue if that dialogue is serious and responsible, meaning that the Syrian authorities would implement what is agreed. But the problem with dialogue is that the authorities have lost credibility," Hussein told Reuters.

Beijing and Moscow have been Assad's most important international defenders during the ferocious repression, which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers. The United Nations, the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab powers want Assad to step down and have condemned the crackdown.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4 calling on Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution Thursday.

In other strife across the country, government forces bombarded the opposition stronghold of Homs Saturday.

A blanket of snow covered Homs, strategically sited on the road between Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, as rockets and artillery pounded mainly Sunni Muslim rebel districts.

The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern neighborhood that has been target of the heaviest barrages since the offensive began two weeks ago, activists said.

"There is no electricity and communications between districts are cut, so we are unable to get a death toll. There is no fuel in most of the city," activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.

HAMA OFFENSIVE

The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father Hafez, who died in 2000 after 30 years in power.

Syrian forces killed people in Homs, Hama, the northwestern province of Idlib near the border of Turkey and in Aleppo, Damascus and the southern Hauran Plain, where the popular uprising against Assad's rule started, the Local Coordination Committees said in a statement.

Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country, says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.

The uprising began with civilian protests in March, but now includes a parallel armed struggle led by the loosely organised Free Syria Army, made up of army deserters and local insurgents.

Syria's other significant ally is Iran, itself at odds with the West.

An Iranian destroyer and a supply ship sailed through the Suez canal this week and are believed to be on their way to the Syrian coast, a source in the canal authority said.

Iraq said Saturday it had reinforced security along its Syrian border to prevent arms smuggling after reports that fighters and weapons were crossing into Syria.

"Necessary measures have been taken to consolidate control over the borders with Syria which is witnessing turbulence that encourages infiltration and all kinds of smuggling, especially arms," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office said.

Iraq's Shi'ites fear that if Assad falls, hardline Sunnis could come to power, a shift that could threaten their newly-acquired dominance since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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