By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, March 9 (Reuters) - Syrian tanks fired on opposition districts in Homs on Friday, killing four people, activists said, ahead of a mission by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end a year-long conflict edging into civil war.
Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they were planning to show their strength in the streets after weekly Muslim prayers, but the tankfire kept many indoors in Homs.
They said nationwide protests would mark the anniversary of Kurdish unrest in northeastern Syria in 2004 that was crushed by security forces with about 30 people killed.
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Annan has called for dialogue to reach a political solution, but opposition figures chided him for a proposal they said would only give Assad's forces more time to crush his foes.
Rifts among big powers have blocked any U.N. action to resolve the crisis, with China and Russia firmly opposing any measure that might lead to Libya-style military intervention.
China welcomed the former U.N. chief's mission. "We hope that Mr Annan uses his wisdom and experience to push for all sides in Syria to end their violence and start the process of peace talks," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
China, which despatched an envoy to Syria this week, said on Friday it would send an assistant foreign minister to the Middle East and to France to discuss the crisis. Beijing has told other powers not to use humanitarian aid to "intefere" in Syria.
Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against critics of his bloody crackdown, twice joining China in vetoing U.N. resolutions on Syria.
"We shall not support any resolution that gives any basis for the use of force against Syria," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov tweeted late on Thursday.
A Russian diplomat said Assad was battling al Qaeda-backed "terrorists" including at least 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if government troops withdrew.
Moscow could play a vital role in any diplomatic effort to ease Assad from power and spare Syria further bloodletting.
"If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
In Damascus, security forces killed a civilian overnight when residents of the Kfar Souseh district shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great) from their homes, activists said.
The funeral of Mohammad Sarayji, 30, was due to take place at noon, an occasion likely to lead to further protests.
The state news agency SANA said "huge crowds" had turned out in Damascus and the northeastern city of Hassaka to show support for Assad's reforms and opposition to "foreign interference".
Syrian security forces have already killed well over 7,500 people since the anti-Assad uprising began a year ago, according to a U.N. estimate. The government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 18 more killed on Thursday, while the grassroots Local Coordination Committees put the death toll at 62, including 44 people it said had been slain in cold blood in Homs.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was visiting Syrian refugees in border camps in Turkey after her trip to Syria, where she found scenes of destruction in Homs but few civilians in the battered former rebel bastion of Baba Amr.
Annan has an impressive record as a mediator, but he will need all his skills to halt Syria's slide into civil war.
"The killing has to stop and we need to find a way of putting in the appropriate reforms and moving forward," he said in Cairo where he met Arab Leage chief Nabil Elaraby. Annan said any further militarisation of the conflict would make it worse.
Syrian dissidents reacted with dismay and said government repression had destroyed prospects of a negotiated deal.
"We reject any dialogue while tanks shell our towns, snipers shoot our women and children and many areas are cut off from the world by the regime without electricity, communications or water," said Hadi Abdullah, an activist contacted in Homs.
The Syrian opposition denies any al Qaeda role in a popular uprising against nearly five decades of Baathist rule that erupted last March, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
Assad's violent response to peaceful demonstrations prompted some Syrians, mostly lightly armed Sunni Muslim army deserters, to fight back in an unequal struggle against Assad's 300,000-strong military, secret police and feared Alawite militiamen.
Two rebel groups said four brigadier-generals had defected over the past three days to a camp for Syrian army deserters in Turkey. Earlier Syria's deputy oil minister became the first senior civilian official to announce his defection. (Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Sabrina Mao and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow, Tom Miles in Geneva, Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Janet McBride)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS