AMMAN/BEIRUT Syrian government forces, disregarding U.N. condemnation, renewed their bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs as a Chinese minister arrived for talks with embattled President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday.
Demonstrations against Assad were reported by activists in cities across Syria, including the capital Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, after Friday Muslim prayers despite the threat of violence from security forces.
China's vice foreign minister Zhai Jun arrived in Damascus after the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution telling the increasingly isolated president to halt the crackdown and surrender power.
China, along with Russia, had voted against the motion and says Syria must be allowed to resolve its problems without being dictated terms by foreign powers.
Zhai said before leaving for Damascus: "China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change."
China's embassy in Damascus said Zhai would meet his Syrian counterpart on Friday night, hold talks with Assad on Saturday and also meet opposition figures in Damascus.
Government forces pummelled opposition-held areas of the strategic western city of Homs, now under fire for two weeks.
An intense bombardment hit the mainly Sunni Muslim area of Baba Amro after government troops, backed by armour, advanced from neighbouring Inshaat, opposition activists there said.
"They are mostly firing rockets that directly fall onto buildings and mortar rounds now and then. Only Karama street now separates Baba Amro from the army at Inshaat," activist Aba Iyad said by satelite phone from Baba Amro.
RINGED BY TANKS
In Idlib, capital of the rugged northwestern province on the border with Turkey, two residents told Reuters that tanks ringed the city at dawn. Residents anticipated an assault.
"At every entrance of Idlib several tanks deployed along with pick-up trucks used for troop transport," said one resident, who gave his name as Fouad.
In Deraa, a city on the Jordanian border where the revolt erupted nearly a year ago, explosions and machinegun fire echoed through districts under attack by troops, residents said.
The military has also opened a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad's late father. The Assad clan are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country.
People defied security forces to demonstrate in the streets of towns and cities, as they have done most Fridays since the revolt against Assad's 11-year rule broke out.
At the Zein al-Abideen mosque in central Damascus, YouTube footage provided by activists showed about 2,000 worshippers chanting and clapping "Homs we are with you till death ... the people want the downfall of the regime."
In Aleppo and surrounding suburbs, they chanted: "Please God speed up your victory." Video uploaded from Rastan, a heavily hit city in Homs province, showed hundreds crowded along a street in the rain, clapping their hands over their heads.
It was not possible to verify the video and reports and Syrian authorities tightly restrict media access to the country.
Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 after he had ruled for 30 years, retains crucial support from Russia and China. Moscow has long-standing strategic interests in Syria, including a naval base, and is Syria's main arms supplier.
Syria's other significant military ally is Iran, itself at odds with the west. An Iranian destroyer and a supply ship sailed through the Suez canal this week and are believed to be on their way to the Syrian coast, a source in the canal authority said.
FEAR OF CIVIL WAR
The uprising started out as civilian protests across the country last March but now includes a parallel armed struggle spearheaded by the Free Syria Army.
The rebel fighters have yet to do much more than stage hit-and-run attacks and skirmishes. But Western and Arab powers fear the crisis is sliding into a civil war which could inflame the region's patchwork of religious, ethnic and political rivalries.
Tunisia, which is hosting a meeting on Syria next week, said on Friday Arab countries would encourage the fractured Syrian opposition to unite before they would recognise them as a government-in-waiting.
Israeli Arabs held demonstrations against Assad on Friday, and in Cairo Egyptian and Syrian protesters outside the Syrian embassy demanded the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador, calling him a remnant of Assad's government.
Assad portrays the opposition as foreign-backed terrorists and has promised reforms while rejecting the idea of surrendering power.
On Wednesday he announced a referendum on a draft constitution on February 26 followed by a multi-party parliamentary election, a move swiftly dismissed the opposition and the West.
Assad told a visiting Mauritanian official on Friday that political reforms "have to march parallel with returning security and stability and protecting citizens," the state news agency said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders are considering steps to get humanitarian aid to civilians suffering in embattled areas.
But the West has ruled out military intervention of the type that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last year and must pin its hopes on a bringing together a fragmented opposition movement which includes activists inside Syria, armed rebels and politicians in exile.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)