- Seven people are reported dead Sunday, opposition group says
- Al-Assad praises Russia's veto and thanks Moscow for its support
- Government forces kill 6 "terrorists" and arrest 20 more, the state news agency says
- The U.N. chief urges an end to operations targeting civilians
Syrians aiming to write a new constitution for the strife-torn country will meet for the first time on Monday, the state news agency reported Sunday after a weekend of intense violence.
President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month announced the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution within four months, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported at the time. The October 15 announcement was one of several moves the government has made to defuse protests, but they have not calmed the situation in the country.
Seven people were reported dead Sunday across the country, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that organizes and documents protests.
Government forces killed six people they described as terrorists Saturday, and arrested 20, SANA reported Sunday. The agency said four members of the security forces were killed in the clashes.
Opposition activists, meanwhile, said at least 21 people were killed Saturday, including at least 11 who died when Syrian forces pounded the western city of Homs with tanks, sustaining fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
More than 3,000 people have died since unrest broke out in Syria in mid-March, according to the United Nations.
CNN cannot independently confirm individual accounts of violence because Syria's government restricts the activity of journalists.
Al-Assad, meanwhile, praised Russia's support for his embattled government Sunday in his second interview with international news outlets in two days. Al-Assad told Russia's Channel One television network that his government has been in "constant contact" with Moscow, a longtime ally, since the protests began.
He also thanked the Russians for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution in early October that would have condemned the Syrian response to the protests. China and Russia teamed up to kill the resolution, which had called for an immediate end to the clampdown.
"Russia is aware of the dangers of military or political intervention in the internal affairs of Syria," al-Assad said. He said Syria expected the Russian government "will not only continue supporting Syria but also advocate world stability."
The interview follows one published in Britain's Sunday Telegraph, which billed it as al-Assad's first with a Western journalist since the trouble started. Al-Assad told the newspaper that Western countries should not intervene in his country.
"Syria is the hub now in this region," he said. "It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake. ... Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?
"Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region," said al-Assad, the British newspaper reported.
While he admitted "many mistakes" had been made, the president also defended his security forces.
"We have very few police, only the army, who are trained to take on al-Qaeda," al-Assad told the Sunday Telegraph. "If you sent in your army to the streets, the same thing would happen. Now, we are only fighting terrorists. That's why the fighting is becoming much less."
Saturday's clashes erupted after Friday's massive demonstration in Hama where Syrians demanded an end to al-Assad's rule and called for his prosecution.
Demonstrators also called on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone, naval blockade and other measures to protect Syrian protesters.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Friday's killings. He said the deaths of more than 3,000 people killed since the start of the Syrian uprising amounts to an "alarming" toll.
Ban appealed for an end to military operations against civilians.