As unrest in Syria continues to shake the country, a rally in support of the country’s embattled president has taken place in Damascus.
Bashar al-Assad is facing growing international criticism of his crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.
Thousands of Syrians have fled northern towns where the army is attempting to stamp out resistance.
The army is targeting Maarat al-Numaan after retaking the town of Jisr al-Shughour. But big anti-government demonstrations continue in other towns.
The military claims soldiers and police were killed by armed protesters. However, opponents, witnesses and military deserters dispute that, maintaining that security personnel who died were killed when they tried to stage a mutiny and protect civilians.
People in some towns have now formed their own protection squads, to make sure that residents wanting to flee have a safe passage to the border with Turkey.
“We need immediate intervention,” said one armed resident. “Because Assad is committing huge massacres amongst the Syrian people. He’s killing the children. He’s starving us. There’s no bread, no milk, no food or medicine. Nothing at all.”
This is the biggest ever challenge to the rule of President Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.