Waving placards and pictures of their president, tens of thousands of Syrians protested in a pro-government rally today over a U.N. report on the killing of a Lebanese leader.
"Mr. Mehlis: we are not murderers," read one banner, referring to Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor who wrote the report that implicated top Syrian security officials in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (search).
Organized to show support for the beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad (search), the demonstration in central Damascus came a day before the U.N. Security Council (search) is due to debate the report. The United States and Britain are calling for the council to take a firm stand on Syria.
"With our soul and our blood, we redeem you, Bashar," the crowd chanted in Sabe Bahrat Square. The people held up large posters of Bashar as well as his father, the late President Hafez Assad.
The protesters shouted slogans against the United States and unfurled banners with messages such as: "Get away from Syria" and "Syria will never be another Iraq"
"Wake up Arabs, your turn will come soon," read one banner, in an attempt to draw pan-Arab solidarity.
To ensure a big turnout, the government granted students a holiday and encouraged civil servants to attend. Officials from the ruling Baath Party took part in the demonstration, which was organized by state-controlled labor unions. Policeman blocked roads to traffic to make way for the protest.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw have called on the world to take a strong position on the U.N. report, which found that the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services were complicit in the bombing that killed Hariri and 20 other people in Beirut on Feb. 14. Syria has dismissed this as an unproven allegation.
The report also said Syria's government cooperated with U.N. investigators only "to a limited extent" — a charge that Syria (search) rejects.
"The report indicated that people of a high level of this Syrian regime were implicated," Straw told the BBC on Sunday. "We also have evidence ... of false testimony being given by senior people in the regime. This is very serious"
Straw said earlier that UN Security Council members would consider sanctions against Syria, but it is not clear whether the United States and Britain would receive the support of members such as Russia, an old ally of Syria.
For more than a year, the United States has been putting pressure on Syria, accusing it of interfering in Lebanon, allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq and supporting Palestinian militant groups. Syria denies these charges.