BEIRUT — Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas Saturday at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into one of the largest protests in Damascus since the 11-month uprising against President Bashar Assad began.
The new violence broke out during a visit by a Chinese envoy, who said his country will back a solution to the crisis based on proposals already put forward by the Arab League — even though Beijing is unlikely to support the regional bloc's call for Assad to step aside.
China, along with Russia, recently supported Damascus by vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's regime. During his visit Saturday to Syria, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun urged dialogue and 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 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," a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry's website quoted him as saying.
The statement did not say whether China supported the Arab League call for Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, a plan it opposed and vetoed at the Security Council, and this week at the General Assembly.
Zhai's trip appeared to be part of Beijing's efforts 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.
Syria was also getting support from Iran, its closest ally in the Middle East. Iranian state-run Press TV said two Iranian navy ships have docked in the Syrian port of Tartus to provide maritime training to Syria's naval forces under an agreement signed between the two countries a year ago.
Iran's semiofficial Mehr new agency said the fleet consisted of a destroyer and a supply ship. The report said the vessels arrived Friday, a day after they received permission from the Egyptian armed forces to sail through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea on their way to the Syrian coast. The reports could not be confirmed and there was no official comment from Syria.
In Damascus, several people were wounded when security forces opened fire on mourners at the funeral procession in the Mazzeh district. Activists including the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one person was killed. It added security forces dispersed the protesters and conducting a campaign of raids and arrests following the protest.
The funeral was held for three people killed by security forces on Friday following protests in the area. The activist network Local Coordination Committees said two people died in the gunfire Saturday, but the report could not be immediately verified.
It said a few people were wounded and several people also suffered difficulties breathing from tear gas.
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 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.
"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.