Syrian security forces have fired live ammunition to break up a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, killing at least one person, activists have said.
The shooting in the Mazzeh neighbourhood on Saturday broke out at the funerals of three youths killed in a protest a day earlier.
Saturday's demonstration, which activists said had thousands of participants as snow fell, was one of the biggest seen in and around the capital in months.
The funeral march started from the Grand Mosque. Activists said the crowd grew on the way to the burial site, and that security forces cordoned off the demonstration as it reached an area near the Iranian embassy.
"After the procession we started to chant slogans calling for the regime to step down," Ghyat Shami, an activist with the Local Co-ordination Committees, said.
About 60 people were arrested, according to activists.
The capital's west-central Mazzeh district, which houses many government offices and embassies, has only seen minor anti-government protests since the uprising began in March last year.
The presidential palace overlooks the area from a mountain.
"We belive that the president himself, if he's there, will be able to hear our slogans, Shami said.
Activists reported demonstrations against Assad in cities across the country after noon prayers. meanwhile, shelling reportedly continued in the city of Homs, where opposition neighbourhoods have been under fire for nearly two weeks.
The rallies erupted during a visit by an envoy from China, which along with Russia recently supported Syria by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Assad's regime.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun called on all parties to stop violence that activists say has killed more than 7,000.
"The position of China is to call on the government, the opposition and the rebels to halt acts of violence immediately," Zhai said, adding that it was vital that "calm be restored as quickly as possibly as that serves the interests of the Syrian people".
"We hope that the referendum on a new constitution as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections pass off calmly," Zhai was quoted by Syrian TV as saying.
Syria's main opposition groups have rejected a newly drafted constitution that could end nearly five decades of single-party rule, and have urged voters to boycott a February 26 referendum on the charter.
Assad for his part said the events in Syria were "aimed at dividing the country and delivering a blow to its geopolitical position and historical role in the region," the official SANA news agency reported.
He said he was determined to "advance the political reform process according to a precise plan and timetable."
The developments came as US defence officials told a US television network that "a good number" of unmanned US military and intelligence drones are operating in the skies over Syria to monitor Assad's government forces attacks against civilians and the armed opposition.
"The officials said this surveillance is not in preparation for US military intervention," NBC News reported on Friday.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|
|William A. Cook|