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Syria forces fire on funeral, China urges bloodshed end

Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital's west-central Mazzeh district, which houses many government offices and embassies, leaving one dead

AFP , Saturday 18 Feb 2012
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Security forces shot dead a mourner at a huge funeral on Saturday for demonstrators killed in rare protests in the Syrian capital after a senior Chinese envoy issued a plea for the bloodshed to end.

The Damascus funerals were for four people, two of them teenagers, killed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital's west-central Mazzeh district, which houses many government offices and embassies, a human rights group and activists said.

"The funerals in Mazzeh turned into protests -- it was the closest major gathering to Omayyad Square" in the city centre, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul Rahman, told AFP.

An activist spokesman in Damascus province, Mohammed Shami, echoed the comments.

"It's the first time there have been demonstrations of such a scale so close to the centre of Damascus," he said, adding that some 15,000 people had turned out despite snowfall.

He said the shootings were followed by a "wave of searches and arrests" across the district. "People hid wherever they could," he said.

"State television didn't cover what happened even through it was only a short distance from the Radio and Television Organisation," he added.

Activists described Friday's demonstrations in Damascus as "unprecedented," saying there were 49 in all, and called for a "day of defiance" in the capital on Sunday to galvanise support.

"It's the first time that the protests have spread to well-to-do neighbourhoods," said Moaz Shami of the Local Coordination Committees, which organises demonstrations on the ground.

In a message to Damascus residents on their "Syrian Revolution 2011" Facebook page, activists said: "The blood of the martyrs exhorts you to disobedience."

Security forces also kept up their pounding of the flashpoint central city of Homs as the Chinese envoy visited.

Rockets crashed into strongholds of resistance at the rate of four a minute on Friday, according to one activist, who warned that the city -- Syria's third largest -- faced a humanitarian crisis.

Thirteen of the 30 people killed on Friday were in the Homs district of Baba Amr, the Syrian Observatory said.

After morning talks with President Bashar al-Assad, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun called on all sides in Syria to stop the violence and for planned elections, which have been denounced by the opposition, to go ahead peacefully, state media said.

Zhai, whose government has twice joined Moscow in blocking UN Security Council condemnation of the Damascus regime's deadly crackdown, said it was vital that "calm be restored as quickly as possible," state television reported.

"The position of China is to call on the government, the opposition and the rebels to halt acts of violence immediately," the Chinese envoy said.

"We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly," he added.

"China supports the reforms under way in Syria and the significant measures taken by the country in this field."

Assad for his part said the events in Syria were "aimed at dividing the country and delivering a blow to its geopolitical position and historical role in the region," the official SANA news agency reported.

He said he was determined to "advance the political reform process according to a precise plan and timetable."

On Thursday, Syrian opposition groups rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule, and urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.

Zhai's meeting with Assad followed talks with his counterpart, Faisal Meqdad, late on Friday after which he said the international community must respect Syria's sovereignty.

"The sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of Syria must be respected by all sides and by the international community," SANA quoted him as saying.

China and Russia have faced a barrage of criticism for blocking action by the UN Security Council, including from Arab nations with which Beijing normally has good ties.

"China condemns all acts of violence against innocent civilians" and "does not approve of armed intervention or forcing so-called 'regime change,'" Zhai was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

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