BEIRUT Flag-waving crowds took to the streets of Syrian cities on Thursday in an orchestrated show of loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad on the first anniversary of an increasingly bloody revolt against his rule.
Official media announced government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the northwestern city of Idlib, suggesting the army was gaining ground in the uprising which has cost at least 8,000 lives and crippled the Syrian economy.
Opposition activists said soldiers had fired on people trying to stage anti-regime protests in various locations and reported evidence of fresh atrocities, including the discovery of 23 bodies, some with signs of torture, near Idlib.
State television showed thousands of people in central Damascus, waving portraits of Assad and flags of Syria, Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have not joined Western nations in backing an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside.
"We sacrifice our blood and souls to you, Bashar," the crowds chanted as three helicopters flew past in a military salute.
Television videoed rallies in numerous cities, including Deraa near the border with Jordan, which was the epicentre of the original protest movement last year but has been filled with security forces backed by tanks in the past 24 hours.
Critics said the government had bused in state employees to the demonstrations and had made participation obligatory.
There were no images from three cities where some of the worst violence has occurred in the past year, Homs, Idlib and Hama, and locals reported sporadic clashes in several places.
"The army is intensifying its attack on rebellious villages and firing on areas trying to hold (anti-Assad) protests," said an Idlib resident, who refused to be named for fear of reprisal.
The U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan is due to report back to the Security Council on Friday on his efforts to end the violence and remains in contact with Damascus despite gloom among some Western diplomats over his chances of success.
"The door of dialogue is still open. We are still engaged with Syrian authorities over Mr. Annan's proposals," Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva.
Britain's Guardian newspaper published what it believes to be genuine emails sent and received by Assad and his wife between June and February, revealing a ruling family largely insulated from the gathering crisis.
The emails appeared to show Assad had taken advice from Iran and that he had ridiculed some of his reform pledges as "rubbish". An email purportedly sent by the emir of Qatar's daughter urged the Assads to seek refuge in Doha.
As the anniversary of the uprising neared, so the government appeared to intensify its drive to oust lightly armed rebels from their strongholds, using heavy artillery to subdue first Homs, then Idlib, which lies close to Turkey.
"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighbourhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorised citizens," the state news agency Sana reported on Thursday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 bodies had been found dumped in a rural area near the city. Some of the dead showed signs of torture and they had been blindfolded and handcuffed.
Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.
Turkey said 1,000 Syrians had crossed its borders in the last 24 hours, bringing the total of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey to 14,000. Among those who fled was a Syrian general, the seventh to cross into Turkey.
"The (Syrian) soldiers are taking the women and children and lining them up in front of them as a human shield. They are setting shops and homes on fire," said a 22-year-old man who reached Turkey overnight. He declined to give his name.
The United Nations says some 230,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including 30,000 who have fled abroad, raising the prospect of a refugee crisis.
The government has blamed foreign powers and terrorist gangs for the chaos and say 2,000 soldiers have died in the uprising.
Some 200 rights and aid groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, joined forces to urge Russia and China to back U.N. action against Syria.
China says it opposes foreign intervention in other states while Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, is eager to maintain military cooperation with Damascus, including lucrative arms sales.
Assad confidently predicted at the start of 2011 that Syria was immune from the "Arab Spring", in which the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen lost power.
But on March 15, a few dozen protesters braved the streets of Damascus to call for more freedom. Days later riots broke out in Deraa, on the border with Jordan, to protest against the torture of local boys caught writing anti-government graffiti.
Despite a crumbling economy and tightening sanctions, Assad still seems to have significant support within Syria, notably in its two top cities - Damascus and Aleppo. His ally Iran also remains supportive, anxious not to lose its main Arab friend.
But Syria faces growing isolation. On Wednesday, Italy and Saudi Arabia said they were shutting their Damascus embassies.
Diplomats say the fighting is developing along sectarian lines. The Sunni Muslim majority, who make up 75 percent of the population of 23 million, is at odds with Assad's Alawite sect, which represents 10 percent but controls the levers of power.
But internal divisions have hindered the rebel effort.
The opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, is far from united. Three prominent opposition members resigned from the group this week saying they have given up on trying to make it a more effective player.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer, additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva; Editing by Robert Woodward)