Syria Crisis: Security Forces Open Fire On Funeral
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Angus MacSwan
AMMAN/BEIRUT, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Syrian security forces fired live ammunition to break up a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday, killing at least one person, opposition activists said.
A Chinese envoy met the Syrian leader and urged all sides to end 11 months of bloodshed, while backing a government plan for elections. He later held talks with three dissidents.
The shooting broke out at the funerals of three youths killed on Friday 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. People are running and trying to take cover in the alleyways," said a witness, speaking to Reuters in Amman by telephone.
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.
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 honour the victims. Mourners shouted: "We sacrifice our blood, our soul for you martyrs. One, one, one, the Syrian people are one".
Youtube footage from the Damascus suburb of 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.
Zhai, speaking hours before the shooting at the funerals, said China backed Assad's plan for a referendum on Feb. 26 followed by multi-party elections to resolve the crisis. The opposition and the West have dismissed the plan as a sham.
The Chinese envoy appealed for an end to violence from all sides, including the government and opposition forces. His comments nevertheless amounted to a show of support against world condemnation of Assad's crackdown on the popular uprising.
"China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect," he said.
China's state news agency Xinhua highlighted Zhai's comments that China was "deeply concerned by the escalating crisis". The Syrian TV report quoted him as saying: "The Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability."
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 crackdown 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 ferocious repression.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 calling on Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution on Thursday.
BOMBING THE OPPOSITION
Syrian government forces meanwhile renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs on Saturday.
A blanket of snow covered Homs, on the highway between Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, as Syrian troops pounded mainly Sunni Muslim rebel districts with rockets and artillery.
The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern neighbourhood that has been target of the heaviest barrages since the armoured offensive began two weeks ago, activists said.
"Troops have closed in on Baba Amro and the bombardment is mad, but I don't know if they are willing to storm the neighbourhood while it is snowing," activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.
"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."
The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father. The Assad clan are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country.
Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez when he died in 2000 after 30 years in power, 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.
The West is concerned that the conflict is sliding towards a civil war that could spread across the region's patchwork of ethnic, religious and political rivalries.
But it has ruled out Libya-style military intervention, instead imposing sanctions and urging a fragmented opposition, which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile, to present a common front against Assad.
Tunisia, which is hosting a meeting on Syria next week, said on Friday Arab countries would encourage the opposition to unite before they would recognise them as a government-in-waiting. (Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon)