Backers of Syria's president rally in Damascus

Tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in Damascus in a show of support for President Bashar Assad
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in central Damascus on Wednesday in a show of support for President Bashar Assad, as the Arab League said it was seeking to foster dialogue in the divided nation.

State television broadcast the rally live as pro-Assad marchers in the Syrian capital's central Umayyad Square waved the nation's flags and hoisted images of the embattled president.

Opposition groups demanding Assad's ouster called for a general strike and insisted that dialogue with the president was futile.

Wednesday's Damascus demonstration was the latest government-sponsored rally designed to show that Assad still enjoys robust backing despite months of protests and violence.

An Arab League delegation, led by the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, was scheduled to arrive in Damascus on Wednesday to encourage talks between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.

But Arab League representatives faced a daunting task in the heavily polarized nation. Damascus has assailed "foreign interference" in its affairs.

Some Arab League nations, critical of Assad's crackdown on protesters, have sought without success to suspend Syria's membership in the league. The Syrian government has expressed doubts about the league's goals and warned any nation against recognizing a major opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called on the Arab League to press Syria to allow the entry of international monitors to observe the behavior of security forces.

More than 3,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad erupted in mid-March, according to the United Nations.

Opponents blame the killings on the government's crackdown against protests. The Assad administration blames "terrorists" and "armed groups" acting on a foreign "conspiracy," and says more than 1,000 security officials have been slain.

The Obama administration has joined other Western governments in calling for Assad to step down.

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-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: A Syrian waves the national flag during a rally in support of President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Wednesday. Credit: Youssef Badawi / EPA

 
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