Syrians stage another pro-regime rally
BEIRUT (AP) — Tens of thousands of Syrians held a mass rally Thursday in support of embattled President Bashar Assad, but the regime's crackdown on dissent continued in opposition areas as security forces killed at least nine people, including two youths, activists said.
The demonstration in the coastal city of Latakia came one day after a similar pro-regime rally in the capital, Damascus, as authorities try to galvanize supporters in the face of a seven-month uprising against Assad.
The U.N. estimates that the government crackdown on protests has killed 3,000 people.
On Thursday, a 14-year-old youth in the southern village of Dael was among at least four people killed by Syrian forces during security raids, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group.
A video posted online by activists showed blood pouring from the teenager's head, soaking his blue T-shirt, as another boy screamed in the background.
The video could not be independently verified. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented independent reporting, making witness accounts and activist groups crucial sources of information about the uprising.
The activists said five civilians, including a 12-year-old, were killed later Thursday in the village of Karnaz in central Syria, during heavy clashes between the army and gunmen, believed to be soldiers who defected.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of the revolt in Syria, a country of 22 million people, although the movement has been remarkably resilient.
But the regime is strong as well and in no imminent danger of collapse, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out and bloody stalemate.
Assad's main bases of support include Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad. For the most part, the military, a key factor, has remained loyal to Assad
The Syrian government insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and foreign extremists looking to stir up sectarian strife.
The opposition has yet to bring out the middle and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses, although protests have been building.
Both sides of the conflict remain energized. Anti-regime protesters pour into the streets across the country every Friday, defying the near-certain barrage of shelling and sniper fire by regime forces.
International sanctions are chipping away at the regime's strength.
On Thursday, Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Allaw acknowledged Damascus was having difficulty selling its oil after the European Union banned oil imports from Syria.
Syria was exporting some 140,000 barrels of oil per day, most of it bound for the European Union. The EU says that Syria earned euro 3.1 billion ($4.35 billion) by selling oil to the EU in 2010.
Allaw said discussions are under way with more than 50 international companies to export the Syrian crude oil, but finding tankers to ship the oil was a challenge.
He added that the government already has signed three contracts, but he did say which countries were involved or offer other details.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue