18 Feb 2012

Syrian troops fire on protesters in Damascus

At least one person has died in the Syrian capital Damascus after security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fired live rounds at protesters, according to opposition activists.

Shooting broke out at the funerals of three youths killed on Friday in one of the biggest anti-Assad protests so far. A witness said: “They started firing at the crowd right after the burial. People are running and trying to take cover in the alleyways.”

The Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union said the gunfire near the cemetery had killed one mourner and wounded four, including a woman who was hit in the head.

Up to 30,000 demonstrators had taken to the streets in the capital’s Mezze district, near the headquarters of air force intelligence and that of the ruling Ba’ath Party, witnesses said.

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun urged all sides to end the bloodshed after 11 months of violent unrest. He backed a government plan for elections and later held talks with three moderate dissidents.

Mr Assad said: “What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region.”

Mr Zhai, speaking hours before the shooting at the funerals, 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.

The Chinese envoy said: “China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect. The Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability.”

Beijing and Moscow have been Mr 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 the Syria president to step down and have condemned the use of force.

Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution earlier this month calling for Mr Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces have renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs, with troops pounding the 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.

The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a history of resistance to Assad’s late father.