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Syria rebels plan Damascus 'day of defiance'

Updated at 10:56 a.m. ET: AMMAN/BEIRUT -- Police and militia patrols fanned out in the Syrian capital's Mezze district on Sunday to prevent a repeat of protests against President Bashar al-Assad that have threatened his grip on Damascus, opposition activists said.

Police cars and militia vehicles patrolled Mezze while secret police agents spread out on foot, stopping men at random and checking their identification cards.

Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera reported that activists called for a 'day of defiance' on Sunday amid anger that security services fired on mourners in Damascus on Friday.

Egypt's recalling of Shawqy Ismail, its ambassador to Syria, comes as Arab states continue to pile pressure on Damascus over its crackdown on dissent that has left thousands dead.

Mohammed Amr, the foreign minister "summoned the Egyptian ambassador to Damascus ... and it was decided that the ambassador will remain in Cairo until further notice," Amr Rushdi, an Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement on Sunday.

The Syrian army has continued to bombard at least half a dozen cities, despite the United Nations calling for an end to the violence. ITN's Bill Neely reports.

Violence erupted in the restive northwest province of Idlib, where gunmen opened fire on a car carrying a senior Syrian state prosecutor and a judge, killing both of them and their driver, according to the state news agency.

Syrian military defectors waging an armed struggle against Assad's regime control parts of Idlib province, which borders Turkey. It has been one of the regions hardest hit by the government crackdown on an 11-month-old uprising against Assad's regime.

State news agency SANA said Idlib provincial state prosecutor Nidal Ghazal and Judge Mohammed Ziadeh were killed instantly in the attack.

Clashes between military rebels and Syrian forces are growing more frequent and the defectors have managed to take control of small pieces of territory in the north and in central Homs province. The increasing militarization of the conflict is pushing Syria to the brink of a civil war.

About 15,000 people had turned out on Saturday, despite snowfall, to attend the funerals of four people, two of them teenagers, killed when security forces fired on protesters in the capital's Mazzeh district a day earlier.

On the international front, China said it believed a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis was still possible but Britain's foreign minister said he feared the Middle Eastern country will slide into civil war.

China's official Xinhua news agency reflected Beijing'sview a day after a Chinese envoy met Assad in Damascus while thousands of Syrians demonstrated in the heart of the capital in one of the biggest anti-government rallies there since a nationwide uprising started nearly a year ago.

Sunday, the body of Samer al-Khatib, a young protester who was killed when security forces opened fire on the protest, was buried in Mezze early in the morning.

Security forces maintained a heavy presence to prevent the funeral from turning into an anti-Assad demonstration, opposition activists contacted by Reuters from Amman said.

'Risk of arrest'
Fifteen trucks carrying security police and armed pro-Assad militiamen, known as 'shabbiha', surrounded the funeral as Khatib was buried quietly, they said.

"Walking in Mezze now carries the risk of arrest. The area is quiet and even the popular food shops in Sheikh Saad are empty," activist Moaz al-Shami said, referring to a main street.

The Damascus protest indicated the movement against Assad, who has ruled Syria for 11 years after succeeding his father Hafez on his death, has not been cowed by repression and embraces a wide section of Syrian society.

Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a majority Sunni country, says he is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.

Saturday's shooting by security forces took place as a Chinese envoy, Foreign Minister Zhai Jun met Assad and appealed to all sides to end the violence.

Zhai also expressed Beijing's support for Assad's plan to hold a referendum and multi-party elections within four months - a move the West and some in Syria's fragmented opposition movement have dismissed as a sham.

China has emerged as a leading player in the multiple international efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria and is one of Assad's main defenders.

"China believes, as many others do, there is still hope the Syria crisis can be resolved through peaceful dialogue between the opposition and the government, contrary to some Western countries' argument that time is running out for talks in Syria," the Xinhua commentary said.

It also criticized the West's stance, highlighting differences between foreign powers over how to deal with the conflict.

Western countries were "driven less by their self-proclaimed 'lofty goal'of liberalizing the Syrian people than by geopolitical considerations," Xinhua said.

The words might bring a measure of comfort to Assad, who is now generally reviled in the West for a crackdown in which his security forces have killed several thousand people.

China and Russia infuriated Western and Arab states this month by blocking a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Assad to halt the repression and surrender power. They also voted against a similar, non-binding U.N. General Assembly resolution that was overwhelmingly passed this week.

The United States, Europe, Turkey and Gulf-led Arab states have all demanded Assad quit power.

The West has ruled out any Libya-style military intervention but the Arab League, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, has indicated some of its member states were prepared to arm the opposition, which includes the rebel Free Syrian Army.

British Foreign Minister William Hague reiterated that view Sunday, telling the BBC: "We cannot intervene in the way we did in Libya ... we will do many other things."

"I am worried that Syria is going to slide into a civil war and that our powers to do something about it are very constrained because, as everyone has seen, we have not been able to pass a resolution at the U.N. Security Council because of Russian and Chinese opposition."

'Army is getting tired'
Leading Syrian businessman, Faisal al-Qudsi, said the government was slowly disintegrating and sanctions were ruining the economy.

He told the BBC in London military action could only last six months but Assad's government would fight to the end.

"The army is getting tired and will go nowhere," he said.

"They will have to sit and talk or at least they have to stop killing. And the minute they stop killing, more millions of people will be on the streets. So they are in a Catch-22."

Qudsi, who was involved in Syria's economic liberalization, told the BBC the apparatus of government was almost non-existent in trouble spots like Homs, Idlib and Deraa.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees said security forces killed 14 people in Damascus and other parts of the country Saturday, including five in the opposition stronghold of Homs. None of the figures could be verified independently.

Government forces bombarded Homs again Sunday. The western city, strategically sited on the road between Damascus and commercial hub Aleppo, has been under siege for more than two weeks and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as food and medical supplies to treat the wounded are running short.

Rockets, artillery and sniper fire have killed several hundred people, according to activists' reports, but security forces have held back from a full invasion of opposition held districts. Residents fear a bloodbath should that take place.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attorney general for Idlib province, Nidal Gazal, a judge and their driver were all killed Sunday morning when unidentified gunmen shot at their car.

Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.