China said on Saturday it backed President Bashar al-Assad's plans for a referendum and multi-party elections to resolve the Syria crisis, a show of support against world condemnation of the Syrian leader's crackdown on a popular uprising.
After meeting Assad in Damascus, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun also called for an immediate end to the violence by all sides in the 11-month-old conflict.
Assad announced his plan on Wednesday for a referendum on a new constitution on February 26 followed by a multi-party election. The Syrian opposition and the West swiftly dismissed it as sham.
We hope that the referendum on the constitution and the parliamentary elections take place in a continuous way, Zhai said, according to Syrian state television monitored in Beirut.
China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect.
The Chinese state news agency Xinhua highlighted Zhai's comments that China was deeply concerned by the escalating crisis and wanted the government and various political factions in the country to end all acts of violence against civilians.
The Syrian report quoted him as saying: The Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability.
China and Russia have been Assad's most important international defenders during the crackdown which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers. The United Nations, the United States, Europe, Turkey and Arab powers want Assad to step down and have condemned the ferocious repression.
Beijing and Moscow vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4 calling on Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution on Thursday.
BOMBING THE OPPOSITION
Syrian government forces meanwhile renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs on Saturday.
A blanket of snow covered Homs, on the highway between Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, as Syrian troops pounded mainly Sunni Muslim rebel districts with rockets and artillery.
The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern neighbourhood that has been target of the heaviest barrages since the armoured offensive began two weeks ago, activists said.
Troops have closed in on Baba Amro and the bombardment is mad, but I don't know if they are willing to storm the neighbourhood while it is snowing, activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.
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.
On Friday, opposition activists reported anti-Assad demonstrations in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities after weekly Friday prayers. Security forces shot dead at least three demonstrators in the capital after prayers, they said.
The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father. The Assad clan are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country.
Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 after he had ruled for 30 years, portrays his enemies as nothing more than foreign-backed terrorists.
The uprising began with civilian protests in March, but now includes a parallel armed struggle led by the loosely organised Free Syria Army, made up of army deserters and local insurgents.
Syria's other significant ally is Iran, itself at odds with the West. An Iranian destroyer and a supply ship sailed through the Suez canal this week and are believed to be on their way to the Syrian coast, a source in the canal authority said.
The West has ruled out Libya-style military intervention, instead imposing sanctions and urging a fragmented opposition, which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile, to present a common front against Assad.
Tunisia, which is hosting a meeting on Syria next week, said on Friday Arab countries would encourage the opposition to unite before they would recognise them as a government-in-waiting.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus MacSwan in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon)