Last updated: 26 October, 2011

Mass rally backs Syrian president as 15 die

An Arab League team held “frank” talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday in a bid to mediate with the opposition, as activists said at least 19 people were killed in violence.

“The meeting with President Assad was frank and friendly and we are going to continue our talks on October 30,” said Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani.

“We took note of the commitment of the Syrian government to work with the Arab committee to reach a solution.”

Headed by Qatar, the League’s current chair, the delegation comprised the foreign ministers of Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Sudan, in addition to Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

Faced with a tough mission, Arabi has said he hopes “the Syrian regime will agree to this initiative, and begin with genuine reforms,” in comments to pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.

“It is my prerogative as secretary general of the Arab League to meet with any member of the peaceful opposition,” said Arabi, referring to a “disagreement” with Damascus after he met members of the Syrian opposition.

At an emergency session in Cairo on October 16, the 22-member League called for “national dialogue” between the government and opposition by the end of October to help end the violence and avoid “foreign intervention” in Syria.

Syria’s representative to the League, Youssef Ahmad, slammed what he said was a “conspiracy” against Assad’s regime at the Cairo meeting.

But the initiative has also been criticised by the opposition.

“Arabs, do not get more involved in the bloodshed against us,” said the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a coalition representing some 40 opposition blocs.

“We will not accept anything less than Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and his trial,” they said.

In a show of support for the embattled president, a huge crowd of Assad supporters rallied in Damascus on Wednesday. State news agency SANA said more than a million people took part.

The demonstrators, waving Syrian flags and brandishing pictures of Assad, swarmed to Omayyad Square, chanting, “The people want Bashar al-Assad.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 19 people, including nine government soldiers, had been killed in the latest unrest between Assad loyalists and opponents.

“Nine servicemen, including an officer of the Syrian regular army, were killed by a rocket, fired by armed men, probably deserters. The soldiers were on a vehicle in Al-Hamrat village, on the Hama-Salamiyah road,” it said.

Clashes between security forces and soldiers who have deserted and joined the opposition calling for the ouster of Assad have become more frequent in past weeks, particularly in the centre of the country.

The Britain-based Observatory said that seven civilians, including a baby, were shot dead by security forces in the central Homs region, a bastion of the Syrian opposition.

Another civilian was killed by shots from a military checkpoint at Saraqeb, in the northwestern province of Idlib, a 63-year-old man was killed in the eastern region of Abu Kamal, and a child in Douma, near the capital, it added.

The Syrian opposition called a nationwide general strike in protest against the regime’s crackdown on protest that has left at least 3,000 people dead since mid-March, according to UN figures.

The Local Coordination Committees, which organise protests on the ground, said it was widely followed in Daraa, southern Syria, in areas of Damascus, Idlib, and in Hama and Homs in the centre of the country.

It posted videos on the Internet of deserted streets and shuttered shops.

The leading opposition group, the Syrian National Council, urged “all categories of people to go on strike” ahead of the launch of a massive campaign of civil disobedience.

SNC head Burhan Ghaliun, meanwhile, called for the international community “to protect the Syrian people from the daily massacres,” in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.