First anniversary of Syria’s uprising: Regime forces take revenge on Idlib
DAMASCUS - Huge rallies played up support for Syria's president on Thursday despite a new "massacre" report and a refugee exodus to Turkey as a deadly revolt against his autocratic rule entered a second year.
International peace envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, demanded answers from President Bashar al-Assad's regime before the UN Security Council re-enters the fray in a conflict which monitors now say has cost more than 9,100 lives.
State television showed tens of thousands of people waving Syrian flags and Assad's portrait in squares in Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, Suweida to the south and Hasaka in the northeast.
The cities have been relatively unscathed by the deadly crackdown on dissent.
The authorities, which have blamed the bloodshed on foreign-backed "terrorist gangs," announced a "global march for Syria" to counter anti-regime demonstrations being organised this week by the opposition across the world.
Against a backdrop of a sea of flags, including the colours of Syria's Russian and Iranian allies as well as Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah, a bugler played in Damascus before a military band struck up the national anthem.
"We are not scared of death. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Syria," the demonstrators chanted, many of them singing and dancing, and shouting: "Long live the army!"
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Thursday gave a breakdown of 9,113 deaths for the past 12 months: apart from 6,645 civilians, it said the toll included 1,991 members of Assad's security forces and 471 rebels.
In Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus, security forces broke up scattered anti-regime protests, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organise demonstrations on the ground.
The Observatory, meanwhile, said 23 mutilated corpses were found near the protest city of Idlib in northwest Syria that was seized by regime forces earlier this week.
It said the victims had been blindfolded and handcuffed before being shot dead and the bodies dumped outside Idlib, in an apparent repeat of a "massacre" of dozens of women and children in the flashpoint city of Homs last weekend.
"Twenty-three bodies with marks of extreme torture were found near Mazraat Wadi Khaled, west of the city of Idlib," said the Observatory.
It also said at least five others were killed in raids by security forces across the province of Idlib.
Human Rights Watch stepped in to demand an end to the "scorched earth methods" being deployed by Assad, and insist that China and Russia stop blocking UN efforts to take tough action.
"City after city, town after town, Syria's security forces are using their scorched earth methods while the Security Council's hands remain tied by Russia and China," HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson.
"One year on, the Security Council should finally stand together and send a clear message to Assad that these attacks should end," said the New York-based group's Middle East director.
Moscow and Beijing have since October blocked two Security Council draft resolutions to condemn Damascus on the grounds they were unbalanced and aimed at regime change.
UN-Arab League mediator Annan has urged Assad to speed up efforts to end the bloodletting in Syria.
The former UN chief had received the president's response to "concrete proposals" he submitted to the Syrian leader in Damascus last weekend but had more "questions and is seeking answers."
Annan, who is to brief the Security Council on his mission by videoconference from Geneva on Friday, "is still in contact with the Syrian authorities -- the dialogue continues," said his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.
In neighbouring Turkey, the foreign ministry said about 1,000 Syrian refugees, including a defecting general had crossed into the country in the past 24 hours.
Ankara accused the Syrian leadership of planting landmines near its border with Turkey along routes used by refugees.
"The number of Syrian refugees currently staying in Turkey boomed by 1,000 in a single day and climbed to 14,700 total," foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said.
Turkey's Red Crescent chief, Ahmet Lutfi Akar, warned that up to 500,000 Syrians may cross into the country seeking refuge from the bloodshed.
"There is an extreme situation. There are various scenarios that this figure may climb up to 500,000," the Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying.
Also in Turkey on Thursday, hundreds of Syrian activists in a "Freedom Convoy" left from the city of Gaziantep for the border with Syria to mark the one-year anniversary.
"Our goal is to put pressure in our way on the Syrian government to stop its massacres and its embargo on its own people," Moayad Skaif, one of the organisers, said.