Tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in support of President Bashar al-Assad in the northern city of Aleppo on Wednesday while to the south his troops carried out a sustained offensive to crush the seven-month uprising against his rule.
The state-organized gathering in Syria's commercial hub came a week after a similar demonstration in Damascus, showing authorities can still rally mass support in the country's two main cities despite waves of unrest across the nation.
"We love you" sang demonstrators, holding pictures of Assad and waving Syrian, Russian and Chinese flags — a reference to Moscow and Beijing's veto of a United Nations draft resolution which could have led to U.N. sanctions against Damascus.
Huge flags were draped from seven-story buildings around the square where demonstrators gathered to hear nationalist songs and speeches supporting Assad, who has defied U.S. and European calls to step down. Residents said Aleppo schools were closed on Wednesday to boost attendance at the rally.
In the central city of Homs, where residents say gunmen and army deserters have battled government forces sweeping through several neighborhoods, activists said six people were shot dead by pro-Assad "shabbiha" gunmen in the Naziheen district.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 people were killed across Homs province, including seven soldiers killed in clashes with suspected army deserters. Seven people were also killed in army raids in the villages around the town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, activists said.
Foreign journalists are largely banned from Syria, making it difficult to confirm reports.
Syrian authorities blame "armed terrorist groups" for the unrest and say 1,100 police and soldiers have been killed. The United Nations says Assad's crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
Syria's opposition National Council, which has pledged to seek international protection to stop civilian deaths and has called for the uprising to remain peaceful, was recognized by Libya on Wednesday as the country's legitimate authority.
"We ask other countries ... to take the same path as Libya," Syrian opposition activist Wael Razak told a news conference in Tripoli. Noting that some Gulf Arab states had withdrawn ambassadors from Syria, he called on other countries "to end relations with the dictatorship in Syria."
Assad has sent troops and tanks into cities and towns to put down the unrest. But protests have persisted, although in reduced numbers, with several thousand soldiers from the mainly Sunni Muslim rank-and-file army now challenging his rule.
Diplomats and military analysts say army desertions have been fueled by the intensity of Assad's campaign to crush the protest movement that was inspired by the Arab Spring that overthrew veteran leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Several officers have recently announced their defection, although most deserters have been Sunni conscripts who usually man roadblocks and form the outer layer of military and secret police rings around restless cities and towns.
The officer corps of Syria's army is composed mainly of members of Assad's minority Alawite community.
The latest desertions included 20 soldiers who left their posts near the town of Hirak, 80 km (50 miles) south of Damascus, and clashed with troops after the killing of three protesters demonstrating against the arrest of a popular cleric, activists said.
One Hirak resident said the clashes, which broke out late on Tuesday, continued on Wednesday and troops sealed off the city cemetery to prevent mourners burying the dead protesters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four of Assad's troops were killed in the province of Idlib near the border with Turkey in northwest Syria.
"Attrition is increasing within army ranks and beginning to form a problem for Assad. The geographical area of the protests is large and the regime is being forced to use Sunni soldiers to back up core forces," a senior European diplomat in Damascus said.
"It is taking longer and longer for loyalist forces to control rebel areas. Large areas of Idlib are virtually out of control and it took them 10 days to regain a small town like Rastan," he said, referring to fighting in which opposition sources say 100 insurgents and deserters were killed and Assad's forces also suffered heavy losses.