Damascus, Mar 16 : Huge rallies played up support for Syria's president today despite a new “massacre” report and a refugee exodus to Turkey as a deadly revolt against his autocratic rule entered a second year.
International peace envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, demanded answers from President Bashar al-Assad's regime before the UN Security Council re-enters the fray in a conflict which monitors now say has cost more than 9,100 lives.
State television showed tens of thousands of people waving Syrian flags and Assad's portrait in squares in Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, Suweida to the south and Hasaka in the northeast. The cities have been relatively unscathed by the deadly crackdown on dissent.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, meanwhile, said 23 mutilated corpses were found near the protest city of Idlib in northwest Syria that was seized by regime forces this week.
The victims had been blindfolded and handcuffed before being shot dead and the bodies dumped outside Idlib, it said, in an apparent repeat of a “massacre” of dozens of women and children in the flashpoint city of Homs last weekend.
It also said at least 16 other people were killed in violence today: nine civilians and four rebel fighters in Idlib province, a soldier shot dead in the city of the same name, and two army officers on the Homs-Qusayr road.
The authorities, which have blamed the bloodshed on foreign-backed “terrorist gangs,” announced a “global march for Syria” to counter anti-regime demonstrations being organised this week by the opposition across the world.
Against a backdrop of a sea of flags, including the colours of Syria's Russian and Iranian allies as well as Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah, a bugler played in Damascus before a military band struck up the national anthem. “We are not scared of death.
We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Syria,” the demonstrators chanted, many of them singing and dancing, and shouting: “Long live the army!”
In a breakdown of 9,113 deaths in the past 12 months, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll comprised 6,645 civilians, 1,997 members of Assad's security forces and 471 rebels.
In Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus, security forces broke up scattered anti-regime protests, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organise demonstrations on the ground.
“Bashar, get out,” women chanted at a rally in the Jubar district of eastern Damascus, in a video posted by activists on the Internet.
Human Rights Watch stepped in to demand an end to the “scorched earth methods” being deployed by Assad, and insist that China and Russia stop blocking UN efforts to take tough action.
“City after city, town after town, Syria's security forces are using their scorched earth methods while the Security Council's hands remain tied by Russia and China,” HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson.
Moscow and Beijing have since October blocked two Security Council draft resolutions to condemn Damascus on the grounds they were unbalanced and aimed at regime change.
After a mission to Damascus, UN-Arab League mediator Annan has urged Assad to speed up efforts to end the bloodletting in Syria.
The former UN chief had received the president's response to “concrete proposals” he submitted to the Syrian leader last weekend but had more “questions and is seeking answers.”