Syrian activists call for ‘Day of Defiance’
Egypt recalls Syrian ambassador as activists call for civil action after mass protests over reported killing of mourner.
Syrian activists have called for a “Day of Defiance” after security services fired on mourners in Damascus, as Egypt announced that it had recalled its ambassador to Syria.
Activists made the call for action on Sunday following the death of at least one person during a funeral that turned into a mass demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad a day earlier.
Egypt’s recalling of Shawqy Ismail, its ambassador to Syria, comes as Arab states continue to pile pressure on Damascus over its crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead.
Mohammed Amr, the foreign minister “summoned the Egyptian ambassador to Damascus … and it was decided that the ambassador will remain in Cairo until further notice,” Amr Rushdi, an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement on Sunday.
About 15,000 people had turned out on Saturday, despite snowfall, to attend the funerals of four people, two of them teenagers, killed when security forces fired on protesters in the capital’s Mazzeh district a day earlier.
Security forces were reported to have opened fire again and sprayed tear gas to break up the funeral procession, which then turned into one of the biggest protests seen in the capital since the uprising against Assad began in March.
Mohammed Shami, a spokesman for activists in Damascus province, said: “It’s the first time there have been demonstrations of such a scale so close to the centre of Damascus.”
He said the shootings, in which many people were reported to have been wounded, were followed by a “wave of searches and arrests” across the residential district.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an activist network, said 12 other people were killed elsewhere in the country.
Meanwhile, gunmen killed a senior prosecutor and a judge in northwest Syria on Sunday morning, the country’s state news agency, SANA reported.
The state news agency said gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Nidal Ghazal, Idlib provincial state prosecutor and judge Mohammed Ziadeh, killing them instantly along with their driver.
China backs league
The violence in Damascus erupted during a visit to the capital by Zhai Jun, China’s vice foreign minister, who held talks with Assad.
A Chinese foreign ministry statement quoting Zhai said late on Saturday said that Beijing supports the Arab League’s proposals for ending the violence in Syria.
The statement comes just two weeks after China opposed the Arab bloc’s proposal when it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backing the league’s plans.
Referring to Saturday’s violence, Agnes Levallois, a Paris-based Middle East expert, said: “We said from the onset that the day when huge demonstrations will spill out in Damascus and [Syria’s second city] Aleppo, it will be the end of the regime.”
The continuing onslaught on the rebel city of Homs “has spurred many Syrians, who were still hesitating, to join the protest movement”, Levallois said. “The wall of fear has really crumbled.”
Meanwhile, shelling reportedly continued in the city of Homs, where opposition neighbourhoods have been under fire for nearly two weeks. Activists said the areas of Inshaat, Bab Amr and bab Dreib were hit by rockets.
Following Saturday’s meeting between Zhai and Assad, a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website quoted Zhai as saying that China was willing to work with the Syrian government and opposition, the Arab League and Arab countries to find a solution.
“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 to the Syrian crisis within the framework of the Arab League and on the basis of the Arab League’s relevant political solution proposals,” the statement said.
Zhai called on all parties to stop violence that activists say has killed more than 7,000 people.
“The position of China is to call on the government, the opposition and the rebels to halt acts of violence immediately,” Zhai said, adding that it was vital that “calm be restored as quickly as possible as that serves the interests of the Syrian people”.
“We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly,” Zhai was quoted by Syrian TV as saying.
A ruling party newspaper said on Saturday in an editorial that China courageously defied the West when it opposed a nonbinding resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning human rights violations in Syria.
“It is wrong to blindly come down on the side of the West in each vote,” it said.
The seemingly contradictory stances on the Arab League’s proposals appear to reflect Beijing’s desire for mediation but aversion to UN involvement.
Also on Saturday, two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian port city of Tartous, the Iranian broadcaster Press TV reported.
The warships reached Tartous, northwest of the capital Damascus, after crossing the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea.
The crossing was the second in a year by Iranian warships, Iran’s navy chief said.
‘Dividing the country’
Syria’s main opposition groups have rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule, and have urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.
Assad for his part said on Satuday that the events in Syria were “aimed at dividing the country and delivering a blow to its geopolitical position and historical role in the region,” the official SANA news agency reported.
He said he was determined to “advance the political reform process according to a precise plan and timetable”.
The developments came as US defence officials told a US television 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 the armed opposition.
“The officials said this surveillance is not in preparation for US military intervention,” NBC News reported on Friday.