Syrian Forces Fire on Funeral Procession in Damascus

China VFM Zhai JunSyrian security forces fired live rounds and
tear gas at thousands of people marching Saturday in a funeral
procession that turned into a protest in Damascus, killing at least one
person, activists said. It was one of the largest demonstrations in the
capital since the 11-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad

Pictured: Chinese
Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun speaks to the media in Damascus, Syria,
Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012. Jun said China was “extremely concerned” about
the escalation of the crisis in Syria. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

Several people were
reported wounded and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human
Rights said security forces dispersed the protesters and were conducting
a campaign of raids and arrests in the Mazzeh district.

fresh violence erupted during a visit by an envoy from China, which
along with Russia recently supported Syria by vetoing a U.N. Security
Council resolution that would have condemned Assad’s regime. Chinese
Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun called on all parties to stop violence
that has killed more than 5,400 people since March of last year,
according to the U.N.

China has sought 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.

funeral procession in Damascus was held for three people killed by
security forces on Friday following protests in the area. An activist in
the area and the Observatory said at least one person was killed as
security forces fired to disperse the crowds. The activist network Local
Coordination Committees said two people died, but the report could not
be immediately verified.

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

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

“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.”

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 two
other people were killed in Syria on Saturday, one in Homs who died from
sniper fire and another in the north, who was shot by security forces
conducting raids.

The fresh violence erupted
shortly after the Chinese envoy met with Assad at the presidential
palace. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, he said he was
hopeful Syrian authorities would restore stability to the country soon.

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.

U.N. 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.

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.

Zhai urged Syrians to participate in the planned referendum

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.