- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2011

BEIRUT — Three months into Syria’s bloody political showdown, some 200 critics of President Bashar Assad’s regime prepared to convene in an unprecedented opposition gathering Monday in Damascus after another deadly weekend for anti-government protesters.

Activists reported Sunday that Syrian forces opened fire when funerals for slain demonstrators in a Damascus suburb turned into protests Saturday. Two people were killed, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

He said one person was killed in Damascus’ Barzeh neighborhood during protests and two were killed in the village of al-Quseir, near the Lebanese border. This followed what activists said were the killings of 20 people during demonstrations Friday across Syria, including two children ages 12 and 13.

Monday’s planned meeting among scores of Syria-based opposition figures and intellectuals, the first such inside Syria during the current upheaval, is meant to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy, said Louay Hussein, a prominent Syrian writer and dissident. They’ll meet under the slogan, “All for Syria within a civil and democratic state.”

He said Syrian authorities were informed of the meeting and had not blocked it. There will be no government representation, he said.

Another participant, well-known Syrian writer Michel Kilo, who spent years in Syrian prisons for his criticism of the regime, said those meeting Monday have “their own choices and positions” for ways of moving Syria to democracy. He said no one from outside the country had been invited and participants belong to no political faction.

Whether such a group might produce partners for Mr. Assad’s proposed “national dialogue” remains to be seen. In a nationally televised speech June 20, Mr. Assad said he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments.

Two days later, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem called for regime opponents to enter into political talks.

The opposition says some 1,400 people have been killed — most of them unarmed protesters — during the government crackdown on months of street protests.

The regime disputes that figure, however, and says security forces have been the victims of “armed thugs” and foreign conspirators it says are behind the unrest.

The unrest has sent thousands of Syrians fleeing into neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. As of Sunday morning, more than 11,450 Syrian refugees were sheltered in Turkey, officials there said. Hundreds, some with gunshot wounds, crossed into Lebanon late last week.

Mr. Assad has come under growing international condemnation and sanctions, including from U.S. Sen. John McCain, who was in Cairo on Sunday.

Calling Mr. Assad a “butcher,” the Arizona Republican said, “It’s time to call out Bashar Assad for what he is, and call for him to step down from power, or be removed from power by the people.”

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