Ahmed Elbatrawy

2 killed as Syrians protest near palace

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(CNN) — The tensions sweeping across Syria enveloped the capital of Damascus on Saturday, with security forces firing at protesters and a Chinese diplomat urging the country’s leaders to negotiate with the opposition.

At least two people died when demonstrators packed the streets of Damascus to rail against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and mourn the deaths of three people recently slain by security forces.

“Father of the martyr, raise your head high!” demonstrators chanted in the central neighborhood of Mazzeh. Tens of thousands of mourners and protesters packed the streets as security forces confronted the protesters with gunfire and tear gas, killing the two, said the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists.

The two were among 12 deaths across Syria on Saturday, the LCC said.

The regime’s security forces started a relentless crackdown on peaceful demonstrators nearly a year ago, a push that stoked a cycle of anti-government sentiment and continual clampdowns in cities across Syria.

In recent months, more and more opposition fighters have taken up arms against the government soldiers, police and militia.

World powers have deplored the violence but have been unable to stop it. The persistent unrest was the topic on the table when al-Assad met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun on Saturday.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Zhai supports the regime’s reform process, including a February 26 referendum on a draft constitution.

But Zhai said, “we are worried about the escalation of crisis in Syria,” according to SANA.

“I exchanged clear and profound viewpoints with President al-Assad about the Syrian issue. … China as a friendly country to Syria is following with great concern the developments here,” Zhai said, according to the Syrian news outlet.

Zhai said China urged all sides “to sit on the dialogue table to reach a comprehensive political plan.”

“I briefed President al-Assad on China’s basic stance image over the Syrian issue. This stance is represented by calling on the Syrian government, armed men and the opposition to an immediate halt of acts of violence against civilians.”

China and Russia have vetoed attempts by the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian regime for what many countries call a massacre of civilians.

Both nations have major trade ties with Syria, and critics of China say Beijing fears that condoning a resolution that could lead to regime change might one day threaten its own rule.

Two of Syria’s neighbors weighed in on the unrest Saturday.

Iraq’s president, Nuri al-Maliki, said the government is strengthening the nation’s border with Syria because of weapons-smuggling. Sunnis in Anbar province at the border have denounced al-Assad’s rule and proclaimed their solidarity to Syrian opposition members, many of whom are Sunni.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said al-Assad and his family are “doomed” to be toppled because of the government’s assault against its citizens. Speaking to reporters in a trip to Japan, Barak believes al-Assad could lose power over many weeks and doubts he will be in charge by 2013.

The Syrian regime has refuted reports that his forces are targeting civilians, saying they are fighting armed gangs and foreign fighters bent on destabilizing the government.

But the vast majority of accounts from within the country indicate Syrian forces are slaughtering civilians in its offensive on civilians calling for al-Assad’s ouster and scoffing at the government’s attempt at reforms.

The United Nations has said well over 5,000 people have died in more than 11 months, though it does not have a recent death count due to the conditions in the country. The LCC puts the number at more than 7,000.

Along with the two killed in the capital, the LCC reported deaths in other provinces: three each in Homs and Idlib, two in Daraa and one each in Hama and Aleppo. Syrian forces shelled a clinic in the Daraa town of Basr al-Hareer and launched raids in the city of Deir Ezzor.

Security forces continued its shelling of Homs neighborhoods, including Baba Amr and Inshaat, bastions of anti-government sentiment, the LCC said.

SANA reported the death of a law enforcement member was killed Saturday “and many others were wounded” in Idlib province.

CNN cannot independently confirm opposition and government reports of violence because the Syrian government has severely restricted the access of international journalists.

CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz, Yousuf Basil, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Kevin Flower and Eunice Yoon contributed to this report

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Ahmed Elbatrawy