Syrian security forces have fired live ammunition to break up a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, killing at least one person, opposition activists said.

A Chinese envoy met the Syrian leader earlier and urged all sides to end 11 months of bloodshed, while backing a government plan for elections.

China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun later held talks with three dissidents.

The shooting broke out at the funerals of three youths killed yesterday in an anti-Assad protest.

"They started firing at the crowd right after the burial. People are running and trying to take cover in the alleyways," said a witness, speaking to Reuters by telephone.

The opposition Syrian Revolution Coordination Union said the gunfire near the cemetery had killed one mourner and wounded four, including a woman who was hit in the head.

Up to 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets in the capital's Mezze district, near the headquarters of Airforce Intelligence and that of the ruling Baath Party, witnesses said.

Mr Assad today described the turmoil in Syria as a ploy to split the country.

"What Syria is facing is fundamentally an effort to divide it and affect its geopolitical place and historic role in the region," he said after meeting Mr Zhai.

China supports Assad's referendum

Mr Zhai said China backed Mr Assad's plan for a referendum on 26 February followed by multi-party elections to resolve the crisis.

The Syrian opposition and the West have dismissed the plan as a sham.

The Chinese envoy appealed for an end to violence from all sides, including the government and opposition forces.

His comments nevertheless amounted to a show of support against world condemnation of Mr Assad's crackdown on the popular uprising.

"China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect," he said.

China's state news agency Xinhua highlighted Mr Zhai's comments that China was "deeply concerned by the escalating crisis".

The Syrian TV report quoted him as saying: "The Chinese experience shows a nation cannot develop without stability."

China and Russia have been Mr Assad's most important international defenders during the crackdown, which has killed several thousand people and divided world powers.

The UN, the US, EU, Turkey and Arab powers want Mr Assad to step down and have condemned the ferocious repression.

Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on 4 February calling on Mr Assad to quit and also voted against a similar, non-binding General Assembly resolution on Thursday.