Syria's security forces yesterday opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least seven people just a day after President al-Assad pledged to engage in a "national dialogue" to safeguard the country's now precarious future.
This new round of civilian bloodshed, the latest in Syria's 12-week insurrection, came as the Ba'athist regime attempted to shore up its tottering government by rallying its own supporters onto the streets. Tens of thousands of people, many waving Syrian flags and chanting pro-government slogans, gathered in city squares across the country.
A witness said that around 10,000 regime supporters arrived in the central Syrian city of Homs yesterday. "Nobody knows them, they are strangers to the city, they were asking for directions," the witness told the Associated Press news agency.
Another activist in Homs told The Independent there had been clashes between the pro and anti-government demonstrators. "I tried to get into the city centre today but I couldn't," said the man. "Some of the roads are blocked by anti-government people and others are blocked by pro-government people, including the police force."
During the stand-off, a number of civilians were killed by bursts of machine-gun fire. There were also reports that the security services were arresting injured demonstrators.
Despite the large pro-government demonstrations, many activists said the rallies bore the familiar hallmarks of an organised Ba'athist protest. Radwan Ziadeh, a US-based human-rights activist, said: "It's orchestrated by the Syrian regime to show that Bashar al-Assad still has some popularity in Syria and some people support him. But it's a failed strategy."
The day of violence, in which protesters were also shot dead in Hama and the eastern desert city of Deir al-Zour, came as the Syrian military continued to fan out across north of the country. Troops came to within a mile of the Turkish border where thousands of refugees are camped out on the Syrian side.
The UN's refugee agency's spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said that UN officials who had visited north-west Syria found a wasteland of ghost villages and empty farm fields. It was evidence of a "significant displacement" of people, he added. The Syrian army's sweep also extended to Aleppo, the country's second city and an area which has so far escaped serious unrest.
In a sign the regime is getting jittery about the prospects of maintaining Aleppo's relative sense of calm, a number of students were arrested at the university following a demonstration yesterday. There were also reports army roadblocks around the city had been increased.
Mohammed Karkouti, a senior member of opposition exile group the Syrian Conference for Change, said: "It's a very, very critical situation. I think the revolution is beyond Bashar al-Assad and the regime. The only right thing he said in his speech on Monday was that we're not going back. He is right, but it won't be good for the regime."
Human-rights groups say more than 1,400 civilians have been killed by troops and security forces since the start of the uprising, which began in the southern city of Daraa after 15 schoolboys were arrested for spraying anti-regime graffiti.
On Monday, President al-Assad used a televised addressed to mix vague promises of reform with warnings about "saboteurs" and murky conspiracies. The speech, coupled with yesterday's display of pro-government support, led some analysts to suggest the president would lead his country to the precipice in order to defend his family's 40-year grip on power.
International pressure is still building. Although Russia has said it opposes any UN Security Council resolutions condemning the regime, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin yesterday said there was a "need to apply pressure" on any country where "massive unrest" was happening.