AMMAN (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of supporters of President Bashar al-Assad rallied in Damascus on Wednesday while his opponents staged strikes across Syria ahead of an Arab league mission aimed at bringing the two sides together for talks.
People in the central city of Homs, a hotbed of unrest against Assad, held a general strike to protest his crackdown against seven months of unrest in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed.
Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said anti-Assad gunmen enforced the strike, and army gunfire, which killed four people on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.
In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest attack in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.
Assad faces international pressure over his crackdown, with the United States and the European Union slapping sanctions on Syrian oil exports and businesses, helping drive the economy into recession.
France said on Wednesday that Assad's government almost certainly would fall under the pressure of the protests and sanctions, but said it would take time and the country could be plunged deeper into conflict.
"This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
"But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene," he told French radio.
In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of Assad in what has become a weekly show of support organized by authorities.
State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of Assad, saying they were rallying under the slogan "Long live the homeland and its leader."
The rally took place before envoys from six Arab nations were due to arrive in Damascus for talks with Assad following their call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.
"What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved," Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said of the delegation which is led by Qatar and also includes Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.
Assad's government says it is serious about political reform, which it asserts militants are trying to wreck. The opposition says Assad has no intention of relaxing his grip on power, pointing to an increase in killings, torture, arrests and assassinations.
Human Rights Watch said the Arab mission should demand that Syria allow independent, civilian monitors on the ground to observe how security forces operate.
"The only way to make sure civilians are protected is to have on-the-ground monitors whose presence would inhibit abuse by the security services," HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
Aware of regional implications if Assad -- from Syria's minority Alawite sect -- were to fall, leaders of mostly Sunni nations across the Middle East have been cautious about criticizing him or taking action, as they struggle to deal with regional unrest and uprisings.
In Homs, residents said public employees took part in the strike for the first time, and only a few food shops were open. Video footage on the Internet showed shuttered shops on both sides of a main street in the nearby rural region of Houla.
In Deraa the impact was reportedly even greater. "Their is total closure. Streets of Deraa empty , even the few butcher shops and pharmacies that were open are now closed," said Jasem Masalmeh, a resident of the provincial capital.
Syria has barred most foreign media, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Editing by Michael Roddy)