Syrians rally for Assad in Aleppo
Amman, October 19, 2011
Tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday while to the south his troops carried out a sustained offensive to crush the seven-month uprising against his rule.
The state-organised gathering in Syria's commercial hub came a week after a similar demonstration in the capital Damascus, showing authorities can still rally mass support in the country's two main cities despite waves of unrest across the nation.
"We love you" sang demonstrators, holding pictures of Assad and waving Syrian, Russian and Chinese flags -- a reference to Moscow and Beijing's veto of a United Nations draft resolution which could have led to UN sanctions against Damascus.
Huge flags were draped from seven-storey buildings around the square where demonstrators gathered to hear nationalist songs and speeches of support for Assad, who has defied US and European calls to step down. Residents said Aleppo schools were closed on Wednesday to boost attendance at the rally.
In the central city of Homs, where residents say gunmen and army deserters have battled government forces sweeping through several neighbourhoods, activists said six people were shot dead by pro-Assad "shabbiha" gunmen in the Naziheen district.
Those deaths raised to at least 38 the death toll in a three-day army offensive in Homs, a city of one million which has seen regular anti-government protests.
Near the border with Lebanon, activists said two people were killed in the town of Nazariya. Foreign journalists are largely banned from Syria, making independent confirmation of reported events difficult.
Syrian authorities blame "armed terrorist groups" for the unrest and say 1,100 police and soldiers have been killed. The United Nations says Assad's crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
Syria's opposition National Council, which has pledged to seek international protection to stop civilian deaths and has called for the uprising to remain peaceful, was recognised by Libya on Wednesday as the country's legitimate authority.
Assad has sent troops and tanks into cities and towns to put down the unrest. But protests have persisted, although in reduced numbers, with several thousand soldiers from the mainly Sunni Muslim rank-and-file army now challenging his rule.
Diplomats and military analysts say moves by Assad, of the minority Alawite sect, to crush the protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring that overthrew veteran leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have fuelled army desertions.
Several officers have recently announced their desertion, although most desertions have been Sunni conscripts who usually man roadblocks and form the outer layer of military and secret police rings around restless cities and towns. - Reuters