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Syrian forces fire on crowded funeral procession

Activists say two were killed in the latest violence, which came during a visit to Syria by a Chinese envoy.

By Zeina KaramAssociated Press / February 18, 2012



Beirut, Lebanon

Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas Saturday at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into one of the largest protests in Damascus since the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad began.

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The new violence broke out during a visit by a Chinese envoy, who said his country will back a solution to the crisis based on proposals already put forward by the Arab League — even though Beijing is unlikely to support the regional bloc's call for Assad to step aside.

China, along with Russia, recently supported Damascus by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's regime. During his visit Saturday to Syria, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun urged dialogue and called on all parties to stop violence that has killed more than 5,400 people since March of last year, according to the UN.

"China supports all the mediation efforts by the Arab League to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and calls upon relevant parties to increase communication and negotiations to find a peaceful and appropriate solution," a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry's website quoted him as saying.

The statement did not say whether China supported the Arab League call for Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, a plan it opposed and vetoed at the Security Council, and this week at the General Assembly.

Zhai's trip appeared to be part of Beijing's efforts to deflect some of the stinging international criticism over its Feb. 4 veto of the Security Council resolution with stepped-up diplomacy, following the example set by Russia.

Syria was also getting support from Iran, its closest ally in the Middle East. Iranian state-run Press TV said two Iranian navy ships have docked in the Syrian port of Tartus to provide maritime training to Syria's naval forces under an agreement signed between the two countries a year ago.

Iran's semiofficial Mehr new agency said the fleet consisted of a destroyer and a supply ship. The report said the vessels arrived Friday, a day after they received permission from the Egyptian armed forces to sail through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea on their way to the Syrian coast. The reports could not be confirmed and there was no official comment from Syria.

In Damascus, several people were wounded when security forces opened fire on mourners at the funeral procession in the Mazzeh district. Activists including the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one person was killed. It added security forces dispersed the protesters and conducting a campaign of raids and arrests following the protest.

The funeral was held for three people killed by security forces on Friday following protests in the area. The activist network Local Coordination Committees said two people died in the gunfire Saturday, but the report could not be immediately verified.

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