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In Damascus, street protests and diplomacy

By Joe Sterling, CNN
February 19, 2012 -- Updated 0108 GMT (0908 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Close to 300 doctors have been arrested since mid-March, one opposition group says
  • More than 8,500 people have died during the same time period, the group says
  • At least 17 are killed on Saturday
  • Iraq's Nuri al-Maliki is tightening security at the border

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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 were killed when demonstrators packed the streets of Damascus to rail against President Bashar al-Assad's regime and mourn the deaths of three other 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 them with gunfire and tear gas, killing two people, said the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, a network of opposition activists.

The two were among 17 killed across Syria on Saturday, the LCC said. More than 8,500 deaths have been documented since the crackdown started more than 11 months ago, LCC spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati said. The United Nations has said well over 5,000 people have died, though it does not have a recent death count due to the conditions in the country.

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 opposition fighters have taken up arms against government soldiers, police and militia.

World powers have denounced 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 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister 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 said he 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 al-Assad's 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 an offensive on protesters calling for al-Assad's ouster and scoffing at the government's attempt at reforms.

The LCC said Saturday that 295 doctors have been arrested since the start of the unrest, as part of a "fierce campaign" against physicians.

Along with the two killed in the capital, the LCC reported deaths in other provinces: six in Homs, three each in Hama and Idlib, two in Daraa and one in Aleppo.

The LCC said forces firing a machine gun on a tank in Hama killed two children and injured another person.

"The shooting targeted a car they were riding. Security forces arrested the one who was injured and another one who was also with them in the car," the LCC said.

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 their shelling of Homs neighborhoods, including Baba Amr and Inshaat, bastions of anti-government sentiment, the LCC said.

The group also reported clashes in Hasakeh, in northeast Syria. Twenty-three people were injured there, the LCC said.

The Syrian army is still in control of Zabadani, in the Damascus countryside, where soldiers and tanks made a show of force along the streets, according to Mohamed Ali, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee. Security forces are arresting young men, breaking doors and stealing from empty houses, he said.

Finally, SANA reported the death of a law enforcement member Saturday and said "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, Samira Said and Eunice Yoon contributed to this report

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