BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Tens of thousands of Syrians held another mass rally Thursday in support of embattled President Bashar Assad, but the state’s crackdown on dissent continued in opposition areas as security forces killed at least nine people, including two youths, activists said.
The demonstration in the coastal city of Lattakia came one day after a similar large-scale pro-Assad rally in the capital, Damascus, as authorities try to galvanize supporters in the face of a seven-month uprising against Assad.
The U.N. estimates that the government crackdown on protests has killed 3,000 people.
On Thursday, a 14-year-old youth in the southern village of Dael was among at least four people killed by Syrian forces during security raids, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group.
A video posted online by activists showed blood pouring from the teenager’s head, soaking his T-shirt, as another boy screamed in the background.
The video could not be independently verified. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making witness accounts and activist groups the few sources of information on the uprising.
The activists said five civilians, including a 12-year-old, were killed later Thursday in the village of Karnaz in central Syria, during heavy clashes between the army and gunmen, believed to be soldiers who defected.
The violence prompted Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, who was attacked by a group of men believed to be from Syrian security forces in August, to dedicate the Sakharov prize from the European parliament he received Thursday to the “martyrs of freedom.”
“I share this award with all who are deprived of freedom and democracy,” said Farzat, who spoke with AFP by telephone from Kuwait.
“Freedom is a message that crosses generations. I dedicate this award to all the martyrs who gave their life for freedom and who have learned the culture of liberty,” he added.
“I salute them, as well as those who take to the streets, everywhere in the world, searching for freedom, democracy and dignity,” the cartoonist said.
Farzat was among five Arab Spring activists to have won the Sakharov prize, which is awarded to campaigners for freedom, including Syrian lawyer Razan Zeitouneh, 34, Mohammad Bouazizi of Tunisia, awarded posthumously, Egyptian militant Asmaa Mahfouz and Libyan dissident Ahmad al-Zubair Ahmad al-Sanusi.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of the revolt in Syria, a country of 22 million people, although the movement has proved resilient.
But the Syrian state remains strong, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.
Assad’s main bases of support include Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad. For the most part, the military, a key factor, has remained loyal to Assad.
The Syrian government insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and foreign extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife.
The opposition has yet to bring out the middle- and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, although protests have been building.
Both sides of the conflict remain energized. Anti-regime protesters pour into the streets across the country every Friday, defying the near-certain barrage of shelling and sniper fire by regime forces.
International sanctions are chipping away at the regime’s strength.
On Thursday, Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Allaw acknowledged Damascus was having difficulty selling its oil after the EU banned oil imports from Syria.
Syria was exporting some 140,000 barrels of oil per day, most of it bound for the European Union. The EU says that Syria earned 3.1 billion euros ($4.35 billion) by selling oil to the EU in 2010.
Allaw said discussions are under way with more than 50 international companies to export the Syrian crude oil, but finding tankers to ship the oil was a challenge. He added that the government has already signed three contracts, but he did say which countries were involved or offer other details.On the diplomatic front Thursday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem held talks with China’s special envoy for the Middle East, who reaffirmed his country’s opposition to foreign interference in Syria, Syria’s official news agency said.
Moallem and Wu Sike met in Damascus and spoke of “the relations of solid friendship” between their countries, the agency said.
The Syrian minister explained “the current situation, measures taken by Syrian leaders to respond to the legitimate demands of its citizens and efforts made to implement reforms.”
Wu reaffirmed the “pursuit of cooperation between the two countries within international bodies” as well as China’s “opposition to attempts to interfere in Syrian affairs.”
On Oct. 4, permanent U.N. Security council members Russia and China vetoed a Western-proposed resolution threatening the Syrian leadership with “targeted measures” unless it halted the bloody repression.
More recently, China asked Syria to speed up promised reforms.
Assad Wednesday received a delegation of Arab League ministers led by Qatar, which announced that a new meeting would take place Sunday in a bid to find a political solution to the crisis.