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At least 20 people died in clashes and strikes paralysed parts of Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad met Arab ministers seeking to end months of violence and authorities held a mass rally to show support for him.

The official state news agency quoted the head of the Arab League delegation, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, as saying the talks on Wednesday were “cordial and frank” and that the ministers would meet Syrian officials again on October 30.

In the central city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, people held a general strike to protest against his crackdown on seven months of unrest, in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said armed opponents of Assad enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said insurgents enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest incident in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.

Assad faces international pressure over his crackdown, with the United States and the European Union slapping sanctions on Syrian oil exports and businesses, helping drive the economy into recession.

“This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday.

“But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene,” he told French radio.

ARAB MISSION

In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people gathered for what has become a weekly show of support for Assad organised by authorities.

State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of the president, saying they were rallying under the slogan “Long live the homeland and its leader”.

The rally took place before the envoys from six Arab nations arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad following their call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.

“What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said of the delegation, which is led by Qatar and also includes Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.

Assad’s government says it is serious about political reform, which it asserts militants are trying to wreck. The opposition says Assad has no intention of relaxing his grip on power, pointing to an increase in killings, torture, arrests and assassinations.

Human Rights Watch said the Arab mission should demand that Syria allow in independent civilian monitors.

“The only way to make sure civilians are protected is to have on-the-ground monitors whose presence would inhibit abuse by the security services,” HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.

Assad is from the minority Alawite sect in a mostly Sunni Muslim country. Sensitive to the reverberations if he were to fall, leaders of mostly Sunni nations across the Middle East have been cautious about criticising him or taking action, as they struggle to deal with unrest.

In Homs, residents said public employees took part in the strike for the first time, and only a few food shops were open. Video footage on the Internet showed shuttered shops on both sides of a main street in the nearby region of Houla.

In Deraa the impact was reportedly even greater. “There is total closure. Streets of Deraa are empty, even the few butcher shops and pharmacies that were open are now closed,” said Jasem Masalmeh, a resident of the provincial capital.

Syria has barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.

Reuters

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