Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday blamed 11-months of turmoil in which his forces have cracked down on pro-democracy protesters as a ploy to split the country.
"What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region," Assad was quoted by Syrian state television as saying, after meeting China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun in Damascus.
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According to Syrian television, Zhai called on all sides in Syria to end the violence and said Beijing was hopeful that the upcoming referendum on a new constitution, as well as parliamentary elections, will take place calmly.
The referendum, which is at the center of the regime's plan to defuse the unrest, would decide on the country's new draft constitution that would create a multiparty system in Syria, ruled by the Assad family for 40 years.
Zhai backed the referendum, and said China was "extremely concerned" about the escalation of the crisis. He added that the referendum "would be in the interest of the Syrian people."
The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of a nonbinding resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.
Russia and China vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council on Feb. 4 and voted against the measure in the General Assembly.
"China has no selfish interests," Zhai said, defending the veto. He added that China's "objective and just" position on Syria stemmed from its basic interest in the welfare of the Syrian people.
Meanwhile, the head of the Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, warned of the regime's intent to "commit even worse crimes in Homs."
He told Al Jazeera that Assad's regime was handing out gas masks to its soldiers: "This proves this regime is capable of committing even worse crimes against civilians in Homs."
Also Saturday, activists said Syrian security forces fired live rounds and tear gas at thousands of people marching in a funeral procession that turned into a protest in Damascus.
It was one of the largest demonstrations in the capital since the 11-month-old uprising against Assad began.
Several people were reported wounded and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces dispersed the protesters and were conducting a campaign of raids and arrests in the Mazzeh district.
The funeral procession in Damascus was held for three people killed by security forces on Friday following protests in the area. The activist network Local Coordination Committees said a few people were wounded and several people also suffered difficulties breathing from tear gas.
An activist who witnessed the violence said the procession numbered around 15,000, making it among the largest anti-government gatherings in regime-controlled central Damascus since the start of the revolt inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa.
"It was a huge funeral that turned into a protest," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "There was no fear among the participants."
Amateur videos filmed by activists and posted online showed a crowd of people shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, and "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!"
Reuters, AP, AFP contributed to the report
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