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Syrians stage pro-Assad rally ahead of Arab visit
Syrians rally in Damascus in support of president ahead of visit by Arab officials
By The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) ' Tens of thousands of Syrians packed a Damascus square Wednesday in a show of support for embattled President Bashar Assad, a few hours ahead of a visit by senior Arab officials probing ways to start a dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

The Arab ministerial committee led by Qatar's prime minister was expected to arrive later in the day, but prospects for the mission's success were dim in light of the opposition's refusal to engage in talks with the Syrian leadership.

The visit follows a meeting in Cairo last week by the 22-nation Arab League, which gave Syria until the end of the month to end military operations, release detainees arrested in the crackdown, and start a dialogue with the opposition.

Syria's opposition refuses any dialogue with the regime, particularly while it continues its military crackdown on protesters, which the U.N. says has killed 3,000 people since the uprising against Assad erupted n March.

The broad-based opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said Tuesday it was worried that the Arab League's initiative "did not distinguish between the victim and the executioner."

It also called for "international protection for civilians" without elaborating, and for Arab and international observers to be allowed immediately into Syria to monitor the situation.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Arab ministers to demand that the government allow independent, civilian monitors into Syria to observe the behavior of security force.

"Such monitoring would be an essential step to end the violence in Syria and restore a climate of trust," the New York-based group said in a statement Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of Syrians carrying white, red and black flags and posters of Assad gathered at Damascus' Omayyad square in a rally timed to coincide with the Arab ministers' visit.

The opposition says authorities regularly stage massive rallies in support of the embattled leader even as his regime becomes increasingly isolated.

Assad, however, still has significant support among many Syrians, including those who benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who fear they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over and others who see no clear and safe alternative to the president. He also still has the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces, key to his remaining in power.

Damascus appears to have grudgingly agreed to the Arab mission even though it refuses to have outsiders interfere in what it considers its internal affairs. Qatar, in particular, has been critical of the Assad regime's crackdown.

Gulf countries seeking to suspend Syria's membership in the Arab League because of its bloody crackdown on protesters failed to gain enough support for the move at the Oct. 16 meeting in Cairo.

Human Rights Watch also quoted Syrian activists as saying at least 186 protesters and residents have been killed in Syria since the Cairo meeting.

The Syrian government has staunchly defended its crackdown on protesters, saying it is the target of a foreign conspiracy.

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