Thousands demonstrated in Syria on March 15, 2012 in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad. The gathering was designed to mark the first anniversary of the western-backed rebellion inside the country., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Tens of thousands support Syrian government
By Crispian Balmer and Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Flag-waving supporters of President Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Syrian cities on Thursday in an orchestrated show of loyalty to coincide with the first anniversary of an increasingly bloody uprising against his rule.
Official media announced government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the northwestern city of Idlib, suggesting the army was gaining ground in the revolt, which has cost at least 8,000 lives, according to the United Nations.
Fighting continued in other areas of Syria and Western leaders warned of full-blown civil war unless Assad bowed to outside pressure and stood aside. But international powers remain divided, with Russia and China backing Assad.
With no diplomatic solution in sight, state television showed thousands of people thronging central Damascus, holding aloft fluttering Syrian flags and portraits of Assad.
Rallies were also reported in Syria's second city Aleppo, in the southern town of Suweida, the coastal city of Latakia and the Kurdish town of Hassaka. Numerous Russian flags were waved at Thursday's rallies.
As the anniversary of the uprising approached, the Syrian army appeared to step up its offensive against rebel strongholds, regaining Homs and sending tanks into the southern town of Deraa, the cradle of the rebellion.
They also pounded Idlib with artillery in recent days before sending in troops to regain control of the city, which had been a bastion for the Free Syria Army - a disparate collection of lightly armed militants led by deserters.
"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighborhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorized citizens," the state news agency Sana reported on Thursday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 bodies were dumped in a rural area near Idlib. Some of the dead showed signs of torture and they had been blindfolded and handcuffed. All were killed by gunshots.
The U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is due to report back to the Security Council on Friday on his efforts to end the violence and remains in contact with Damascus despite gloom among some Western diplomats over his chances of success.
"The door of dialogue is still open. We are still engaged with Syrian authorities over Mr. Annan's proposals," Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.
Britain's Guardian newspaper published what it believes to be genuine emails sent and received by Assad and his wife between June and February, revealing a ruling family largely insulated from the gathering crisis.
The emails appeared to show Assad had taken advice from Iran and that he had ridiculed some of his reforms pledges as "rubbish". An email purportedly sent by the emir of Qatar's daughter urged the Assads to seek refuge in Doha.
In a sign of the conflict in Idlib, Turkey said 1,000 Syrians had crossed its borders over the last 24 hours, bringing the total of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to 14,000. Among those who fled was a Syrian general, the seventh to cross into Turkey.
"The (Syrian) soldiers are taking the women and children and lining them up in front of them as a human shield. They are setting shops and homes on fire," said a 22-year-old man who reached Turkey overnight. He declined to give his name.
The United Nations says some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.
The government has blamed foreign powers and terrorist gangs for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the uprising.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
Assad confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that Syria was immune from the "Arab Spring", in which the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen lost power.
But on March 15, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.
Schools and shops in the main commercial area of Deraa were closed on Thursday, with hundreds of security forces patrolling the streets. However, activists said several thousand people in the city had staged a protest following the burial of four civilians who were killed during army raids on Wednesday.
Despite a crumbling economy and tightening sanctions, Assad still seems to have significant support within Syria, notably in its two top cities -- Damascus and Aleppo. His main ally Iran also remains supportive.
But Syria faces increasing international isolation. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia and Italy announced they were withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus.
Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines. The Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 percent of the population of 23 million, is at odds with Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 percent but controls the levers of power.
Internal divisions have hindered the rebel effort. The main opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, is far from united and yet to prove to foreign powers that it can lead and unify Assad's foes inside and outside the country.
On Tuesday, three prominent opposition members resigned from the Syrian National Council, saying they have given up on trying to make the group a more effective player.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer, additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva; Editing by Robert Woodward)