Syrian government forces, disregarding U.N. condemnation, renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs on Saturday as a Chinese minister prepared for talks with embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun arrived in Damascus on Friday after the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution telling the increasingly isolated president to halt the crackdown on the 11-month-old uprising and surrender power.
A blanket of snow covered Homs, a city of one million people, as Assad's forces pounded Sunni Muslim districts that have been at the forefront of dissent against his family rule with rockets and artillery.
The troops were close to Baba Amro, a southern district 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, activists reported demonstrations against Assad in cities across the country after the weekly Friday prayers, including the capital Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, despite the threat of violence from security forces.
Security forces shot dead at least three pro-democracy demonstrators in Damascus after Friday prayers, at one of the biggest protests against Assad in the capital, opposition activists said. They were killed as thousands of demonstrators left mosques in the capital's Mezze district, they said.
Zhai said on arriving in Damascus on Friday that he would try to play a positive role and make some contribution to seeking a proper solution to the Syrian issue, Xinhua news agency said in a brief report.
China's embassy in Damascus said Zhai would hold talks with Assad on Saturday after meeting his Syrian counterpart on Friday night, and would also meet opposition figures in Damascus.
China, along with Russia, voted against the U.N. General Assembly motion and says Syria must be allowed to resolve its problems without foreign powers dictating terms to it. China has repeatedly said it opposes sanctions or the use of force in Syria.
Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 after he had ruled for 30 years, retains crucial support from Russia and China. Moscow has long-standing strategic interests in Syria, including a naval base, and is Syria's main arms supplier.
Syria's other significant military 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.
CROWDS EXPECTED AT FUNERALS
Opposition activists said large crowds were expected at the funerals of the three demonstrators in the Mezze district of Damascus later in the day.
Mezze, which houses embassies and an assembly point for pro-Assad militia and security police, has been in turmoil since security forces killed Osama Shebaan, a young protester, this week and some 8,000 demonstrators marched at his funeral.
The demonstrations in Mezze have succeeded because they were synchronised to leave several mosques at the same time and make it more difficult for the 'amn' (security police) to put them down, said Moaz al-Shami, a Mezze-based activist.
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.
The uprising started out as civilian protests across the country last March but now includes a parallel armed struggle led by the Free Syria Army, mainly deserters from the army.
The rebel fighters have yet to do much more than stage hit-and-run attacks and skirmishes. But Western and Arab powers fear the crisis is sliding into a civil war which could inflame the region's patchwork of religious, ethnic and political rivalries.
Tunisia, which is hosting a meeting on Syria next week, said on Friday Arab countries would encourage the fractured Syrian opposition to unite before they would recognise them as a government-in-waiting.
Assad portrays the opposition as foreign-backed terrorists and has promised reforms, while rejecting the idea of surrendering power.
On Wednesday he announced a referendum on a draft constitution on February 26 followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, a move dismissed by the opposition and the West.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders are considering steps to get humanitarian aid to civilians suffering in embattled areas.
But the West has ruled out military intervention of the type that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year, and must pin its hopes on bringing together a fragmented opposition movement which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Tim Pearce and Sanjeev Miglani)