Thousands of mourners braved a snowstorm and heavy security presence to march Saturday through a strategic Damascus neighborhood, turning a funeral procession into a bold opposition statement in a Syrian capital that has remained largely loyal to President Bashar Assad.
The march, in the upscale Mezzeh district, started out peacefully but turned violent, opposition activists said, as security men unleashed barrages of live rounds. At least one person was reported killed and several injured, though there was no official confirmation.
The opposition said as many as 30,000 people participated, a figure that would make it one of the largest protests in the capital since the uprising against Assad's rule began 11 months ago.
Protests in Damascus have typically been confined to suburban opposition enclaves, increasingly isolated by power cuts and road closures. Anti-Assad activists saw a symbolic milestone in the defiant throngs marching openly through Mezzeh: The presidential palace overlooks part of the district.
"Damascus came out from under the ashes," declared Rima Fleihan, a Syrian screenwriter who had organized protests in the capital before fleeing last year to Amman, Jordan. "Damascus has risen up like a giant."
But many observers still consider the city to be firmly in the camp of Assad, whose family has ruled the country for more than 40 years.
The capital is home to a sizable minority population, including Christians and members of Assad's Alawite sect, who fear a sectarian backlash should the government be overthrown in an uprising by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.
The funeral Saturday was for three protesters killed a day earlier in antigovernment protests, the opposition said.
After an imam blessed the bodies, the mourners surged forward, stamping the ground and jumping up and down in unison, as they made their way to the cemetery. The demonstration seemed to have a larger proportion of women than other protests, observers said, though it was unclear why.
"Mezzeh, Mezzeh, come and join us!" the mourners shouted as families watched from balconies of tall buildings. "There is no need for fear, we will be a million martyrs in the heavens."
The appearance of the Syrian revolutionary flag — green, white and black — may have been the catalyst for security men to open fire on the marchers, one participant said.
"They are shooting! Oh my God, they are shooting!" screamed one woman, who grabbed her 5-year-old daughter as live rounds smacked into shop walls and hissed overhead, a witness reported.
The violence came as a top Chinese envoy, Zhai Jun, met with Assad in Damascus and urged "dialogue," while calling on both sides of the Syrian conflict to end the violence.
Superpowers China and Russia have steadfastly supported Assad, even as the United States, Turkey and many Arab nations insist that the time for dialogue is over and Assad must go.
Paul is a special correspondent. A special correspondent in Damascus also contributed to this report.