Tens of thousands rally to support Assad in Damascus

Reuters
A photo taken from a helicopter shows supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's gathering during a rally at al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus
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A photo taken from a helicopter shows supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's gathering during …

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Syrians demonstrated in central Damascus on Wednesday in show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling a six-month uprising against his rule in which the United Nations says 2,900 people have been killed.

"America, out, out, Syria will stay free," chanted the crowd, many of them carrying pictures of Assad and Syrian flags. They also shouted slogans warning the European Union not to intervene in their country.

"God, Syria and Bashar," they sang.

State television described the government-backed rally as a "million-strong march ... supporting national independence and rejecting foreign intervention."

At the start of the demonstration a man holding the flags of Russia and China -- which both vetoed a European-drafted resolution against Syria at the United Nations last week -- flew over the crowd, suspended from a helicopter by rope.

It was the biggest demonstration for months in the center of the capital, which has been relatively untouched by the protests which have rocked Damascus suburbs and other parts of the country.

Assad has responded to the protests with a promise of reforms and a military crackdown on protesters in which tens of thousand have been arrested, according to activists.

There have also been increasing reports of clashes between security forces and opponents, made up of deserting troops and gunmen. Authorities blame armed groups for the violence and say 1,100 members of the security forces have been killed.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Syria and called on Assad to step down. Russia and China have blocked Western efforts seeking U.N. action against Damascus, but have told Assad he must speed up reforms.

(reporting by Dominic Evans)

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