Syrian troops fire on mourners: Activists

An image provided by the Local Coordination Committees in Syria taken Feb. 15, 2012 shows flames leaping the air from a car and building bombed by the Syrian government forces' shelling, in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs.
AP Photo/Local Coordination Committees in Syria

BEIRUT - Activists say Syrian troops have fired on mourners taking part in a massive funeral procession in the capital.

They say several people were wounded by gunfire in the Damascus neighborhood of Mazzeh. Tear gas was also fired on the Saturday procession mourning three people killed by security forces following protests in the area a day earlier.

An eyewitness who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the procession numbered around 15,000.

That would make it among the largest anti-government gatherings to have taken place in regime-controlled central Damascus during the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad.

The witness and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said several were wounded.

This, as a Chinese envoy visiting Damascus called Saturday on all sides in Syria to stop the violence, and said he is hopeful that the authorities will restore stability soon.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun spoke in the Syrian capital following a meeting with President Bashar Assad. He backed a referendum that is at the center of the Syrian regime's plan to defuse the unrest, and said China was "extremely concerned" about the escalation of the crisis.

China's embassy in Damascus said Zhai would also hold talks with opposition figures later Saturday, according to George Baghdadi of CBS News.

The Syrian regime quotes Assad as telling Jun that, "What Syria is exposed to would aim primarily to divide the country and strike its geopolitical position and its historical role in the region." Assad added that Damascus will "continue the process of reform in accordance with a clear plan and a definite timetable."

China and Russia have refused to condemn Syria over the crackdown on an uprising now in its 11th month, which, according to the U.N., killed more than 5,400 people last year alone. The number of dead and injured continues to rise daily as the regime struggles to extinguish major pockets of dissent.

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

"China has no selfish interests," Jun 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.

Jun urged Syrians to participate in a planned referendum on the country's new draft constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Assad family for 40 years.

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.

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

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