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Pro-Assad rally in Syria draws thousands

Tens of thousands of people have rallied in support of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president facing months of protests demanding his resignation.

Pro-government demonstrators massed in Damascus, the capital, on Wednesday as activists said 15 more people, including nine government soldiers, had died in the latest violence.

The protesters, waving Syrian flags and brandishing pictures of Assad, packed into Omayyad square in the heart of the city, chanting "The people want Bashar al-Assad".

The demonstration began as the Arab League's ministerial committee, led by Qatar's prime minister, was expected to arrive later on Wednesday ahead of talks with Syrian officials.

The delegation includes foreign ministers from Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Sudan, in addition to Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

But news agencies said the prospects for the mission's success remained questionable in light of the opposition's refusal to talk to the Syrian leadership.

State news agency SANA said Wednesday's demonstration was being held under the banner, "Long live the homeland and the chief of the homeland; the Syrian people are one family."

As the demonstration continued, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that 15 more people, including nine government soldiers, had been killed in the latest clashes between Assad loyalists and forces backing anti-government protests.

"Nine servicemen, including an officer of the Syrian regular army, were killed by a rocket, fired by armed men, probably deserters. The soldiers were on a vehicle in Al-Hamrat village, on the Hama-Salamiyah road," the rights group said.

Clashes between security forces and soldiers who have deserted and joined the opposition have become more frequent in recent week, particularly in the centre of the country.

Convoy attacked

On Tuesday the rights group said seven security agents had been killed in the Maarat al-Noman clashes, after their convoy was attacked by army deserters backing protesters.

In Wednesday's violence the observatory said that four civilians, including an 18-month-old infant, had also been killed and 17 others wounded by security forces in the central Homs region, one of the bastions of the Syrian opposition.

Several districts in the area had been targeted by rocket-fire, the group said.

Another civilian had been killed by shots coming from a military checkpoint at Saraqeb, in the northwestern region of Idlib, while a 63-year-old man had been killed the eastern region of Abu Kamal, it added.

Arab League chief al-Arabi said he hoped "the Syrian regime would agree to his organisation's initiative, and begin with genuine reforms," in comments to pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat published on Wednesday.

"It is my prerogative as secretary-general of the Arab League to meet with any member of the peaceful opposition," said al-Arabi, referring to a previous "disagreement" with Damascus after he met members of the Syrian opposition.

At an urgent session in Cairo on October 16, the 22-member Arab League called for "national dialogue" between Syria's government and the opposition by the end of October to help end the violence and avoid "foreign intervention" in Syria.

Protests against the Syrian regime erupted in March and have shown no signs of ending despite the rising death toll.

The UN estimates at least 3,000 people, including members of the security forces, have been killed since the protests started.

In Washington, US senators said the UN Security Council should refer credible charges of alleged crimes against humanity by Assad to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In a letter to Washington's UN envoy, Susan Rice, the legislators said it was time for the ICC to look into "deeply troubling and grave charges" against Assad amid the crackdown on protesters.

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