Syrian government forces have continued a crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government, despite the arrival of a Chinese diplomat for talks on the unrest.

Zhai Jun, China's vice foreign minister, is due to hold talks on Saturday with the Syrian president on resolving the country's crisis.

Demonstrations against began in March last year, and unrest has so far claimed thousands of lives, according to UN estimates, as the government continues to suppress protests and the armed opposition has taken to carrying out attacks on Syrian security forces.

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China joined Russia in vetoing a recent UN Security Council resolution that would call for an immediate halt to violence and for the president to abide by an Arab League plan to step down.

Before leaving for Damascus, Zhai said: "China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change."

Upon arriving in the Syrian capital, he said he would strive to "play a positive role" and "make some contribution" to
seeking a "proper solution to the Syrian issue", the Xinhua news agency said.

The UN general assembly passed a similar, but non-binding, resolution, on Thursday.

China's embassy in Damascus said Zhai would meet his Syrian counterpart on Friday night, hold talks with Assad on Saturday and also meet opposition figures in Damascus.

Zhai's comments came as US defence officials told a US network that "a good number" of unmanned US military and intelligence drones are operating in the skies over Syria to monitor Assad's government forces attacks against civilians and armed opposition.

"The officials said this surveillance is not in preparation for US military intervention," NBC News reported on Friday.

'No intention to intervene'

In Turkey, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Western alliance had no intention of intervening in Syria even in the event of a UN mandate to protect civilians, and urged Middle East countries to find a way to end the spiralling violence.


Ammar Waqqaf, of the pro-Assad Syrian Social Club, says a change in government is not in the best interest of the Syria people

Rasmussen said on Friday that he also rejected the possibility of providing logistical support for proposed "humanitarian corridors" to ferry relief to towns and cities embroiled in violence.

"We have no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria," Rasmussen said in an interview with Reuters news agency, during a visit to mark the 60th anniversary of Turkey joining the alliance.

The diplomatic developments came as gunfire and loud explosions were heard on Friday in Damascus, the Syrian capital, while the bombardment of Homs by security forces entered a 13th day.

Activist groups said tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets after the main weekly Muslim prayers, from Deraa in the south to Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Deir ez-Zour in the east to areas around Damascus.

The Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella organisation of opposition groups, said security forces opened fire on some protests, which came in response to a call by internet-based activists for a rally for a "new phase of popular resistance".

In Damascus, one civilian died and 12 were wounded, some critically, when they were fired on at a demonstration in the Mazze neighbourhood, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based opposition group, said.

The SOHR said at least 10,000 people demonstrated in the southern town of Dael, in Deraa, the cradle of the uprising which human rights groups say has cost more than 6,000 lives in the past 11 months.

Other rallies were staged in the towns of Jasem, Inkhel and Nimr al-Hara, where security forces wounded some demonstrators when they opened fire on them.

'Extreme violence'

In Homs, rockets crashed into opposition strongholds at the rate of four a minute on Friday, according to one political activist who said the central Syrian city was facing a humanitarian crisis.

"It's the most violent in 14 days. It's unbelievable - extreme violence the like of which we have never seen before," Hadi

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Abdullah, of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, another opposition group, said.

A tank fired into a residential part of Homs before bursts of machinegun fire clattered across the neighbourhood, according to a video uploaded by activists to YouTube.

"The regime troops are still shelling at the moment but are reluctant to enter Bab Amr [neighbourhood]. They are on the periphery and are moving slowly. The army will lose if it begins urban warfare," Omar Shakir, a prominent activist, said.

International rights groups have estimated that the assault on Homs has killed almost 400 people, and a medic reached on Skype said 1,800 have been wounded.

"There are injuries that cannot be treated because of a lack of medical equipment," Ali al-Hazzuri said.

"There are casualties who are close to dying."

Nine bodies of unidentified people were found on Friday morning in Homs, according to the SOHR, which also reported the heaviest shelling in the city for two weeks.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies