Middle East

Syria unrest: Clashes amid large Pro-Assad rallies

Clashes have broken out between supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government protesters in Homs, Hama and Deir al-Zour.

At least seven people were killed when security forces opened fire on anti-Assad demonstrators, activists said.

Large rallies in support of President Assad have been held across Syria, including Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs, state TV reported.

On Monday, Mr Assad addressed the country, calling for national dialogue.

He called on refugees in Turkey to return to Syria and promised various reforms in the speech, which was dismissed by the opposition as inadequate.

Rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed in demonstrations since March, along with more than 300 soldiers and police.

'Portraits of Assad'

After the speech, state media announced a new presidential decree granting amnesty to prisoners for certain crimes committed before Monday.

Mr Assad made a similar pledge on 31 May, resulting in the release of hundreds from jail. Thousands more remain in prison.

The government has also published a draft law allowing the formation of new political parties, according to Syria's state-run Sana news agency.

A state TV presenter said millions of Syrians across the country were expressing support for the reforms.

TV images showed large crowds carrying Mr Assad's portraits and waving Syrian flags.

But anti-government protesters have said reforms are no longer enough, and that the only solution is a change of regime.

Protesters have also pointed out that there has been no mention of holding the security services accountable for the recent crackdown in the country.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights, said members of the "Shabbiha", an Alawite militia loyal to Mr Assad, fired at protesters in Homs, Hama and Mayadeen, a district of Deir al-Zour, leaving at least seven dead and 10 wounded.

A resident of Mayadeen said it was "difficult to say who started first, but the army's armoured personnel carriers drove through the (anti-Assad) demonstration firing at people".

Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin has said that interference in Syrian affairs was not the solution to the unrest and warned against intervention.

"We believe that interference in the sovereign matters of independent states shows little promise," he said, speaking at a news conference in France.

Russia is withholding support for a UN resolution that condemns the Syrian government's heavy-handed response to protests.

'Torture and humiliation'

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said representatives went on a government-organised visit of the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Monday.

Jisr al-Shughour is the town in the north-west of the country near the border with Turkey where the military launched an offensive after officials claimed that 120 army personnel were killed there.

The UNHCR said most of Jisr al-Shughour was now deserted, with shops closed, while nearby villages from about 40km (25 miles) away were also quiet, with little evidence of people working in the fields.

"Syrian refugees spoke to our team about their fears and trauma. Many had lost family members, who they said were either killed, missing or in hiding," the UNHCR said in a statement.

"Our team heard accounts of murders, targeted assassinations, assaults, civilians getting killed in crossfire, torture and humiliation by the military.

"Most of these people had lost virtually all their belongings and property. In many cases, their livestock were shot, fields were torched, and homes and businesses destroyed or confiscated."

More than 10,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the Turkish border, and Ankara says another 10,000 are sheltering on the Syrian side.