After losing hope in Arab League, Syrians rally in support of rebels
DAMASCUS - Thousands demonstrated in support of the rebel Free Syrian Army on Friday, as longtime Damascus ally Moscow kept up its opposition to calls for tougher action against the regime, saying they were flagrant attempts to bring about its downfall.
Meanwhile, both France and Syria announced investigations into the death of French TV correspondent Gilles Jacquier, the first Western newsman to die in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in March.
Security forces were out in strength as they have been each Friday for the main weekly demonstrations.
Security force fire killed one protester in Idlib province in the northwest and another in the central city of Hama, a human rights watchdog said in Nicosia.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20,000 people had turned out in the Idlib town of Ariha calling for the overthrow of the regime, and another 15,000 in the Damascus suburb of Douma.
Explosions were heard in the flashpoint central city of Homs, the Britain-based watchdog said. The security forces opened fire on demonstrators in Deir Ezzor in the northeast, Daraa province, south of the capital, and in the Damascus suburbs, it added.
Five people were reported wounded in Daraa.
The rallies, following a day in which security forces killed 15 civilians in their crackdown, come after the largest civilian opposition group agreed to boost ties with the rebels.
Burhan Ghaliun, the head of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group that initially opposed the use of force in the uprising, met on Thursday with rebel chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad.
The SNC said they "extensively discussed the situation on the ground and the organisational capacity of the FSA."
They agreed to "formulate a detailed plan, to include the reorganisation of FSA units and brigades, and the creation of a format to accommodate within FSA ranks additional officers and soldiers, especially senior military officials, who side with the revolution," it added.
Formed from deserters from the regular army who mutinied over the regime's deadly crackdown, the FSA says it has some 40,000 fighters under its command.
The numbers cannot be independently verified although the Syrian authorities have acknowledged mounting losses at the hands of the rebels in recent months.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on his way to Syria's western neighbour Lebanon on Friday, issued a call for the international community to stand together to address a crisis which the world body estimated last month had cost more than 5,000 lives.
In an interview with Lebanon's An-Nahar daily, Ban said he had repeatedly appealed to Assad to stop the bloodshed and listen to his people but that he had received only empty promises.
He said the UN Security Council must speak with one voice in seeking an end to the crisis but Moscow renewed its opposition to Western calls for tougher action by the world body.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov rejected Western-proposed amendments to a draft Security Council resolution on Syria which Moscow circulated last month.
"Unfortunately, the West's approach radically differs from ours," Gatilov said.
"Judging by the contents of their proposed amendments, their goal is clearly aimed at removing Assad's regime in Damascus," he said.
Gatilov said that Russia had full confidence in much-criticised Arab League observer mission in Syria since December 26 to oversee a deal to end the b bloodshed.
"We feel their presence is a stabilising factor in Syria that promotes the chances of a peaceful settlement," he said.
The Syrian opposition has called for the Arab League to pull out the observers or at least seek UN tactical support, saying they have been ineffective in ending the violence and have been repeatedly duped by the authorities.
But the League's Syria operations chief Adnan Khodeir insisted that the observers would see the mission through until its initial one-month term finishes on January 19.
"Within the next two days the additional teams who have arrived in Syria recently will be fan out and this will bring the total number of teams deployed there to 16," Khodeir said.
The Arab League deal signed with Damascus called for an end to violence against civilians, the withdrawal of the military from cities, the release of detainees and free access for foreign media.
But following the death of Jacquier on Wednesday, the head of French public television news, Thierry Thuillier, said there were "troubling elements" surrounding the rocket attack that killed him.
"For instance, why, while this journalists' convoy was under military escort, why did the soldiers all of a sudden disappear just as the first shells were fired?" he said.
Both Damascus and Paris have ordered separate investigations.