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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.

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It said a few people were wounded and several people also suffered difficulties breathing from tear gas.

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The 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. While other Syrian cities have witnessed almost daily violence, and more recently clashes between regime forces and army defectors, Damascus has remained largely quiet.

"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 Observatory said four other people were killed in Syria on Saturday, including one in the central city of Homs who died from sniper fire and another in the north, who was shot by security forces conducting raids.

The new violence erupted shortly after the Chinese envoy met with Assad at the presidential palace.

In their talks, Assad described the crisis in Syria as a conspiracy to split the country.

The revolt "aims mainly to divide [the country] and hit its geopolitical place and historic role in the region," he was quoted by state-run state agency SANA as saying.

Zhai, speaking to reporters following the meeting, said he was hopeful Syrian authorities would restore stability to the country soon.

He 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 UN 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 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.

China says the resolution put undue emphasis on pressuring the Syrian government and prejudged the result of any dialogue between the parties to the conflict.

The veto also appears to be rooted in China's deep-seated opposition to humanitarian intervention in other nations. China fears such intervention would legitimize outside interference in its own problems in the restive western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

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.

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

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