Middle East

Syria unrest: China envoy in Damascus talks

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Media captionBBC's Jim Muir: "There's no dialogue except on the battlefield"

A senior Chinese envoy has held talks with officials in Syria, in what Beijing says is an attempt to mediate in the crisis as bloodshed continues.

The visit by Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun comes a day after Beijing voted against a UN resolution calling for an end to violence.

Fighting continued on Friday in Syria, with activists saying that at least 40 people were killed by security forces.

Some were reportedly shot dead in Homs, where the army resumed shelling.

One opposition group said the bombardment was the heaviest since troops of President Bashar al-Assad launched attacks on anti-government strongholds 13 days ago.

Such claims have not been verified independently, as most of foreign media are banned from reporting in Syria.

Mr Zhai met his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, in the capital, Damascus - the outcome of their meeting was not immediately announced. He also met members of the opposition during his visit.

Beijing said it was hoping for "a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation".

'Brutal and unjustifiable'

Beijing, along with Russia, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria last month - put forward by the Arab League - which called for an immediate end to the violence and for Mr Assad to hand over power to his deputy.

They said it amounted to forced regime change and violated Syria's sovereignty, and raised concerns about the possibility of future military involvement.

Image caption Homs has experienced days of heavy shelling

Both countries also voted against the similar resolution which went before the General Assembly on Thursday.

The motion was eventually carried by 137 votes to 12. General Assembly resolution do not carry the legal weight of those in the Security Council, but it was hoped it would increase the diplomatic and moral pressure on Damascus.

International criticism of the Assad regime continued on Friday, with the US Senate passing a resolution condemning its "brutal and unjustifiable use of force against civilians" and expressing disappointment in the Russian and Chinese positions.

After talks in Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said they would continue to support opposition groups in Syria and had discussed getting humanitarian aid to those affected by the violence.

Mr Sarkozy stressed that "the revolution will not be brought about from outside, it will be brought about from the inside".

US Secretary of State also discussed the crisis with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was visiting Washington.

"In the face of this global condemnation, the regime in Damascus appears to be escalating its assaults on civilians," said Mrs Clinton.

She said the US would "keep working to pressure and isolate the regime, to support the opposition and to provide relief to the people of Syria".

Prayer attacks

Meanwhile, Mr Assad is pushing his own reform process, which will see a new constitution put to a referendum on 26 February.

Damascus says the referendum will ensure a truly multi-party democracy, with a two-term limit placed on the presidency, but critics have dismissed it as a farcical exercise while the violence continues.

"The main problem is not the constitution, but the fact that the state has complete control over the army and security forces. As long as you keep that, everything else is just empty promises." Anas al-Abdah, a member of the main opposition group the Syrian National Council, told the BBC earlier this week.

Many in the Syrian opposition are calling for a boycott of the vote.

Rights groups say more than 7,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in April.

On Friday, large numbers took to the streets after prayers - as they have for months - to call for Mr Assad's departure.

Activists said that as in previous weeks, the protesters had come under attack from security forces who cordoned off many areas and arrested people taking part.

Government shells were again fired at Homs, where the rebel soldiers of the Free Syrian Army have dug in and which has been under bombardment for a fortnight.

"It's the most violent in 14 days. It's unbelievable - extreme violence the like of which we have never seen before," said Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution.

He told the AFP news agency the city was in urgent need of humanitarian help.

"There are thousands of people isolated in Homs. There are neighbourhoods that we know nothing about. I myself do not know if my parents are okay. I have had no news from them for 14 days

Violence was also reported in the southern province of Deraa, Aleppo in the north, in Deir ez-Zor close to the Iraq border and in several suburbs of Damascus.

Five people were shot dead in Mezze, on the capital's western edge, activists said.

"Government troops are shelling everything, whether it's buildings, people, houses," said Seif, who had fled across the border to Jordan from Deraa.

He told the Associated Press news agency: "They consider us nothing. They want to eliminate us totally."

The BBC's Jim Muir, reporting from Beirut, says there appears for now to be little chance of China's attempts at mediation working.

The government has clearly decided to go for broke in suppressing defiance, especially armed resistance, says our correspondent.