China urges all sides to end Syria violence

Damage in Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, 16 Feb 2012 The opposition says the government's bombardment of Homs is continuing

A Chinese envoy visiting Syria has called on all sides in the country to end violence, amid talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Syrian TV quoted Zhai Jun as saying he backed the Syrian government's plan for a referendum on the constitution and subsequent elections.

The opposition says it cannot accept a referendum during continuing violence.

It said government forces on Saturday renewed their bombardment of opposition positions in the city of Homs.

There are also reports that thousands of people are attending the funeral in Damascus of three youths killed during anti-Assad protests. Witnesses said troops had fired live ammunition, wounding several people.

Syrian TV quoted Mr Zhai as saying: "The position of China is to call on the government, the opposition and the rebels to halt acts of violence immediately.

"We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly."

Mr Zhai said he hoped "calm [can] be restored as quickly as possibly, as that serves the interests of the Syrian people".

After the meeting, Mr Assad was quoted as saying: "What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region."

The opposition has called for a boycott of the 26 February referendum.

One key group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, said it was "impossible for us to take part in this referendum before a stop to the violence and killings".

'Mad bombardment'

China was one of the nations that voted against a recent UN General Assembly resolution calling on Mr Assad to stop his 11-month crackdown on dissent and step down.

Zhai Jun in Damascus, 17 Feb 2012 Zhai Jun said that "a nation cannot develop without stability"

Beijing, along with Moscow, has been adamant that there cannot by outside intervention to force regime change.

An editorial on Saturday in China's Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party, said Beijing's vote showed "the country's courage to truly express itself and to calmly stand its ground... It is wrong to blindly come down on the side of the West in each vote."

Opposition activists said government forces were continuing their two-week rocket and artillery attack on the opposition stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs on Saturday.

Activist Mohammad al-Homsi told Reuters news agency: "Troops have closed in on Baba Amr and the bombardment is mad, but I don't know if they are willing to storm the neighbourhood while it is snowing."

"There is no electricity and communications between districts are cut, so we are unable to get a death toll... there is no fuel in most of the city."

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says the Syrian government clearly wants to quell all armed resistance and seal its borders to prevent supplies to the opposition.

Meanwhile the human rights group, Amnesty International, said it had obtained new evidence of torture being used by Syrian forces against opponents.

Amnesty researcher, Neil Sammonds, said one man told him that part of his hand was blown off with explosives after he refused to pray to a photograph of President Assad.

Other Syrians at a camp in Jordan said detainees were subjected to protracted beatings. One prisoner said he had been forced to witness the rape of another male detainee.

Syria restricts access to foreign media and it is often not possible to verify some reports and casualty figures.

Human rights groups say more than 7,000 people have died throughout Syria since last March.

The government says at least 2,000 members of the security forces have been killed combating "armed gangs and terrorists".

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