BEIRUT (AP) — Senior Arab officials visiting Syria pressed President Bashar Assad on Wednesday to start a dialogue with the opposition, hours after tens of thousands packed a Damascus square to show support for their embattled leader, state TV reported.
The Arab ministerial committee led by Qatar's prime minister began a meeting with Assad later in the afternoon, but prospects for the mission's success were dim. The opposition's refuses any dialogue with the regime, particularly while it continues its military crackdown on protesters, which the U.N. says has killed 3,000 people since March.
Activists said at least nine civilians were killed Wednesday in military operations across the country, six of them in the flashpoint central city of Homs.
The Arab officials' visit follows a meeting in Cairo last week by the 22-nation Arab League, which gave Syria until the end of the month to end military operations, release detainees arrested in the crackdown, and start a dialogue with the opposition.
Bassma Kodmani, spokeswoman for the broad-based opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it is "impossible" to talk about a dialogue within the current security crackdown.
"And even if the right conditions for dialogue prevail, the only thing to discuss would be a roadmap for the peaceful transfer of power," she told The Associated Press.
Paris-based Kodmani echoed the feelings of Syrian anti-government protesters, many of whom expressed disappointment with the Arab League and called for suspending Syria's membership.
"Russia gives Bashar international protection, Iran gives him weapons, and Arabs give him time," read a banner carried by protesters in northern Syria Tuesday evening. "No dialogue with the killer of children," read another.
The SNC had said in a statement Tuesday it was worried that the Arab League's initiative "did not distinguish between the victim and the executioner."
It also called for international protection for civilians, and for Arab and international observers to be allowed immediately into Syria to monitor the situation.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Arab ministers to demand that the government allow independent, civilian monitors into Syria to observe the behavior of security forces.
Tens of thousands of Syrians carrying white, red and black flags and posters of Assad gathered at Damascus' Omayyad square in a rally timed to coincide with the Arab ministers' visit.
The opposition says authorities regularly stage massive rallies in support of the embattled leader even as his regime becomes increasingly isolated.
Assad, however, still has significant support among many Syrians, including those who benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who fear they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over and others who see no clear and safe alternative to the president. He also still has the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces, key to his remaining in power.
Damascus appears to have grudgingly agreed to the Arab mission even though it refuses to have outsiders interfere in what it considers its internal affairs.
Gulf countries seeking to suspend Syria's membership in the Arab League because of its bloody crackdown on protesters failed to gain enough support for the move at the Oct. 16 meeting in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch also quoted Syrian activists as saying at least 186 protesters and residents have been killed in Syria since the Cairo meeting.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other rights groups said nine civilians were killed Wednesday in shootings by security forces nationwide, including six in the restive city of Homs. The Observatory also reported nine soldiers were killed in Hama province when the bus they were traveling in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade.
The activists said towns and villages in southern Syria, and some areas in the north and east closed their shops and businesses in compliance with an opposition call for a general strike.
The Syrian government has staunchly defended its crackdown on protesters, saying it is the target of a foreign conspiracy.
On Wednesday, it issued a rare rebuttal to a recent report by Amnesty International that accused security forces and medical personnel of torturing wounded protesters at state-run hospitals. A statement issued by the Syrian Health Ministry said the Amnesty report was "full of fallacies and fabrications."
The accusation that Syria is targeting doctors and raiding hospitals in search of wounded protesters has been made before by leading international human rights groups.