Huge crowds rallied in cities across Syria Thursday in a mass show of support for President Bashar al-Assad "to make the world hear our voice" on the first anniversary of a deadly anti-regime revolt.
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 regime's crackdown on a revolt which erupted on March 15, 2011 and has cost more than 8,500 lives, according to opposition activists.
"After a whole year of pressure on Syria, we want to make the world hear our voice: Leave Syria in peace," a woman on the street told the state broadcaster.
According to the official news agency SANA, "millions of Syrians flocked (to the rallies) ... to tell the world that the Syrian people have chosen the path of national unity and stability, free from interference and foreign diktats."
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The authorities, which have blamed the revolt 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.
"For the lives lost in the battle for Syria," was the slogan beamed across the television screen.
Against a backdrop of a sea of flags, including the colours of Syria's Russian ally and the yellow of Lebanon's Shiite militant 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!"
Last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a breakdown of around 8,500 deaths: apart from 6,200 civilians, it said the toll included more than 1,800 members of Assad's security forces and over 400 rebels.
"In democracy, it's the majority which decides ... these people represent a vast movement, in comparison (the anti-regime camp) are only a handful," a commentator said on the live television broadcast.
In Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus, security forces dispersed scattered anti-regime protests, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organise demonstrations on the ground.