Tens of thousands of Syrians protested on Monday after the Arab League resolved to slap unprecedented sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime over its brutal repression of dissent.
As the rallies got underway in Damascus and other cities, activists accused authorities of carrying out sweeping raids around the capital looking for wanted militants, a day after 23 civilians were killed across the country.
Protesters waving Syrian flags and the colours of UN Security Council permanent members Russia and China -- rare allies of a greatly isolated Syria -- thronged the central Sabaa Bahrat Square in central Damascus, AFP correspondents said.
They chanted slogans lauding the embattled Assad and carrying giant pictures of the president who has ruled the country with an iron-fist for 11-years after succeeding his father, Hafez, in July 2000 a month following his death.
"The people want Bashar al-Assad... We are your people Bashar," chanted the protesters. "We love you, we love you."
State media reported huge demonstrations in Aleppo, Syria's second city and economic hub, as well as in Hasake and Raqqa also in the north and in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor.
State television broadcast footage of the pro-regime rallies and slammed the Arab League, describing it as an "instrument for implementing the Western and American plan against Syria."
The sanctions, voted on Sunday as violence in Syria claimed 23 new lives, will affect "all Syrians" not just target the regime, the state broadcaster said.
"The Arab League is punishing the Syrian people for their positions," added the ruling Baath Party's newspaper Al-Baath.
"No matter what happens our heads will be held up," a woman interviewed on Syrian television said.
"The Syrian people are proud and can make do on plain bread," another one said.
The Arab League on Sunday voted sweeping sanctions against Damascus to punish the regime for failing to halt its deadly crackdown on anti-government protests -- the first time the bloc enforces sanctions of this magnitude on one of its members.
The sanctions include an immediate ban on transactions with the Syrian government and central bank and a freeze on Syrian government assets in Arab countries.
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The Arab bloc also banned Syrian officials from visiting any Arab country and called for a suspension of all flights from Syria to Arab countries to be implemented on a date that will be fixed at a meeting next week.
"Shame on the Arab League," said a protester in Damascus.
Nineteen of the Arab League's 22 members voted for the sanctions, but Iraq abstained and said it would refuse to implement them, while Lebanon "disassociated itself," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.
Syria was suspended from the Arab League earlier this month.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who has denounced the sanctions as an Arab League attempt to "internationalise" the Syrian crisis, was expected to hold a press conference later Monday to formally address the issue.
But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Monday that time was running out for the regime in Syria.
"Its days are numbered, that is obvious. It is totally isolated today," Juppe told France Info radio, adding that the Arab sanctions will help "isolate the Syrian regime a bit more."
The Arab League sanctions are likely to be crippling for Syria, which already faces a raft of EU, US and Turkish measures.
On Monday protesters carried flags of traditional Syrian allies Russia, China and Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
In October Russia joined China in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution threatening stiffer sanctions against Assad's regime and Moscow has warned against Libya-style military involvement in Syria.
On Monday Russian media said the navy will send a flotilla of warships led by its only aircraft carrier to its naval base in Syria for a port call next year.
Meanwhile the Italian abbot of an ancient monastery in Syria who has criticised the bloody crackdown on protests and campaigned for peace talks said on Monday he was being expelled from the country where he has lived for 30 years.
"It seems the authorities have decided it would be better if Father Paolo did not stay in Syria," Paolo Dall'Oglio told Vatican radio.
The UN estimates that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the violence that has shaken Syrian since mid-March.