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Pro-Assad rallies as revolt enters second year

17 march 2012, 10:27
Syrians waving national flags and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad during a pro-regime rally. ©AFP
Syrians waving national flags and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad during a pro-regime rally. ©AFP
Huge rallies backing Syria's regime took place in the face of growing international ire at the violent suppression of a year-long revolt, with Arab Gulf states deciding to shut their embassies in Damascus, AFP reports.

International peace envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, demanded answers from President Bashar al-Assad's regime before the UN Security Council re-enters the fray in a conflict that monitors say has cost more than 9,100 lives as it enters its second year.

State television showed tens of thousands of people waving Syrian flags and Assad's portrait in squares in Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, Suweida to the south and Hasaka in the northeast on Thursday.

The cities have been relatively unscathed by the deadly crackdown on dissent.

The authorities, which have blamed the bloodshed on foreign-backed "terrorist gangs," announced a "global march for Syria" to counter anti-regime demonstrations being organised this week by the opposition across the world.

Later the announcement came that all six Arab Gulf states will close their embassies in Syria in protest at the year-long crackdown in the country.

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait took the step, said Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) head Abdullatif al-Zayani early Friday, citing the regime's "massacring its people, choosing the military option and rejecting all initiatives aimed at finding a solution to the crisis."

European Union foreign ministers will mull similar action next week, senior EU sources in Brussels confirmed to AFP.

A Brussels meeting next Thursday and Friday will focus on "possible closures" of the (27 national EU embassies in Syria.

An EU official said that Europe is considering a coordinated withdrawal of all diplomatic contacts with Damascus ahead of the new push at the United Nations for action against Assad's regime.

In a breakdown of the 9,113 deaths in the past 12 months, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll comprised 6,645 civilians, 1,997 members of the security forces and 471 rebels.

In Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus, security forces broke up scattered anti-regime protests, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organise demonstrations.

"Bashar, get out," women chanted at a rally in the Jubar district of eastern Damascus, in a video posted by activists on the Internet.

The Observatory, meanwhile, said 23 mutilated corpses were found near the protest city of Idlib in northwest Syria that was seized by regime forces this week.

The victims had been blindfolded and handcuffed before being shot and the bodies dumped outside Idlib, it said, in an apparent repeat of a "massacre" of dozens of women and children in the flashpoint city of Homs last weekend.

It also said at least 16 other people were killed in violence on Thursday: nine civilians and four rebel fighters in Idlib province, a soldier shot in the city of the same name and two army officers on the Homs-Qusayr road.

Human Rights Watch stepped in to demand an end to the violence and insist that China and Russia stop blocking UN efforts to take tough action.

"City after city, town after town, Syria's security forces are using their scorched earth methods while the Security Council's hands remain tied by Russia and China," HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson.

Since October, Moscow and Beijing have blocked two draft Security Council resolutions to condemn Damascus, saying they were unbalanced and aimed at regime change.

After a mission to Damascus, UN-Arab League mediator Annan has urged Assad to speed up efforts to end the bloodletting in Syria.

The former UN chief had received a response to "concrete proposals" he submitted to the Syrian president last weekend but had more "questions and is seeking answers".

Annan, who is to brief the Security Council on his mission by video conference from Geneva on Friday, "is still in contact with the Syrian authorities -- the dialogue continues," said his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.

The UN said it would send experts on a Syrian government-led humanitarian mission, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the past year of "brutal repression" by Assad's regime.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos stressed "it is increasingly vital that humanitarian organisations have unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies. There is no time to waste."

In neighbouring Turkey, the foreign ministry said about 1,000 Syrian refugees, including a defecting general, had crossed into the country in the past 24 hours.

Turkey's Red Crescent chief, Ahmet Lutfi Akar, warned that up to 500,000 Syrians may cross into the country seeking refuge from the bloodshed.

Also in Turkey, hundreds of activists in a "Freedom Convoy" who tried to enter Syria were stopped by Turkish police near the border. The aid they were carrying would instead be offered to Syrian refugees inside Turkey.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah urged all parties to the conflict in Syria, a close ally of the movement also backed by Iran, to lay down their weapons.

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