Syrian government forces, disregarding UN condemnation, renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs yesterday as Chinese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhai Jun (翟俊) prepared for talks with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Zhai arrived in Damascus on Friday after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution telling the increasingly isolated Syrian president to halt the crackdown on the 11-month-old uprising and surrender power.
A blanket of snow covered Homs, a city of 1 million people, as al-Assad’s forces pounded Sunni Muslim districts that have been at the forefront of dissent against his family rule with rockets and artillery.
The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern district that has been the target of the heaviest barrages since the armored offensive began two weeks ago, activists said.
On Friday, activists reported demonstrations against al-Assad in cities across the country after weekly Friday prayers, including in the capital Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, despite the threat of violence from security forces.
At least three pro-democracy demonstrators were shot dead in Damascus after Friday prayers, at one of the biggest protests against al-Assad in the capital, opposition activists said.
The killings took place as thousands of demonstrators left mosques in the capital’s Mezze District, they said.
Zhai said on arriving in Damascus on Friday that he would try to “play a positive role” and “make some contribution” to seeking a “proper solution to the Syrian issue,” Xinhua news agency said in a brief report.
The Chinese embassy in Damascus said Zhai was scheduled to hold talks with al-Assad yesterday after meeting with the Syrian foreign minister on Friday night, and would also meet with opposition figures in Damascus.
China along with Russia voted against the UN General Assembly motion, and says Syria must be allowed to resolve its problems without foreign powers dictating terms to it. China has repeatedly said it opposes sanctions or the use of force in Syria.
Al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 after he had ruled for 30 years, retains crucial support from Russia and China. Moscow has long-standing strategic interests in Syria, including a naval base and is Syria’s main arms supplier.
Syria’s other significant military 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.
Opposition activists said large crowds were expected at the funerals of the three demonstrators killed in the Mezze District of Damascus later in the day.
Mezze, which houses embassies and an assembly point for pro-al-Assad militia and security police, has been in turmoil since security forces killed Osama Shebaan, a young protester, this week and about 8,000 demonstrators marched at his funeral.
“The demonstrations in Mezze have succeeded because they were synchronized to leave several mosques at the same time and make it more difficult for the amn [security police] to put them down,” Mezze-based activist Moaz al-Shami said.
The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to al-Assad’s late father. The al-Assad clan are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in a majority Sunni country.