Syrian forces fire on funeral process in Damascus

ZEINA KARAM Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at thousands of people marching Saturday in a funeral procession that turned into a protest in Damascus, activists said. It was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital since the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

Several people were reported wounded and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces dispersed the protesters and were conducting a campaign of raids and arrests in the Mazzeh district.

The fresh violence erupted during a visit by an envoy from China, which along with Russia recently supported Syria by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's regime. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun called on all parties to stop violence that has killed more than 5,400 people since March of last year, according to the U.N.

The funeral procession in Damascus was held for three people killed by security forces on Friday following protests in the area. The activist network Local Coordination Committees said a few people were wounded and several people also suffered difficulties breathing from tear gas.

An activist who witnessed the violence said the procession numbered around 15,000, making it among the largest anti-government gatherings in regime-controlled central Damascus since the start of the revolt inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa.

"It was a huge funeral that turned into a protest," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "There was no fear among the participants."

Amateur videos filmed by activists and posted online showed a crowd of people shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, and "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!"

The violence erupted shortly after the Chinese envoy met with Assad at the presidential palace. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, he said he was hopeful Syrian authorities would restore stability to the country soon.

Zhai backed a referendum that is at the center of the regime's plan to defuse the unrest, and said China was "extremely concerned" about the escalation of the crisis. The referendum would decide on the country's new draft constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, ruled by the Assad family for 40 years.

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a nonbinding resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime. Russia and China vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council on Feb. 4 and voted against the measure in the General Assembly.

"China has no selfish interests," Zhai said, defending the veto. He added that China's "objective and just" position on Syria stemmed from its basic interest in the welfare of the Syrian people.

Zhai urged Syrians to participate in the planned referendum

Assad's call for a referendum, set for Feb. 26, has raised the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers. The opposition has opposed the referendum.

Zhai said the referendum "would be in the interest of the Syrian people."

Only in light of stability could Syria conduct comprehensive political reforms, he said.

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Associated Press reporter Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.