Zhai Jun, China's vice foreign minister, has called on all sides in Syria to stop the violence and for elections to go aheadpeacefully after talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria's state media has said.
Saturday's meeting in the capital came amid continued reports of violence in several cities across the country.
"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.
Zhai's meeting with Assad followed talks with his counterpart, Faisal Meqdad, late on Friday after which he said the international community must respect Syria's sovereignty.
"We exchanged views on ways to strengthen our cooperation in the face of this difficult period in Syria," said Zhai, whose government has twice joined Moscow in blocking UN Security Council condemnation of the Damascus government's deadly crackdown on an 11-month uprising.
On Thursday, before heading to Damascus, Zhai said Beijing opposed armed intervention and any forced "regime change" in Syria.
The diplomatic developments came as activists reported that troops were shelling the Homs neighbourhood of Bab Amr, a southern district that has been the target of the heaviest barrages since an armoured offensive began two weeks ago.
"Troops have closed in on Baba Amro and the bombardment is mad, but I don't know if they are willing to storm the neighbourhood while it is snowing," activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.
"There is no electricity and communications between districts are cut, so we are unable to get a death toll ... there is no fuel in most of the city."
International rights groups have estimated that the assault on Homs has killed almost 400 people, while a medic reached on Skype said 1,800 have been wounded.
In Damascus, activists on Saturday aired live footage of a funeral procession in the Mazzeh area for three people reportedly shot dead by security forces at an anti-government demonstration after weekly Friday prayers.
Activists reported demonstrations against Assad in cities across the country after the prayers, including the capital Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, despite the threat of violence from security forces.
Activist groups said tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, from Deraa in the south, Idlib in the north and Deir ez-Zour in the east.
The Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella organisation of opposition groups, said security forces opened fire on some protests, which came in response to a call by internet-based activists for a rally for a "new phase of popular resistance".
The reports of violence 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.
In Turkey, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, said the Western alliance had no intention of intervening in Syria even in the event of a UN mandate to protect civilians, and urged Middle East countries to find a way to end the spiralling violence.
Rasmussen said on Friday that he also rejected the possibility of providing logistical support for proposed "humanitarian corridors" to ferry relief to towns and cities embroiled in violence.
"We have no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria," Rasmussen said in an interview with the Reuters news agency, during a visit to mark the 60th anniversary of Turkey joining the alliance.
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|William A. Cook|