Syria steps up crackdown as UN outcry grows

Residents of the southern Syrian city of Daraa braved sniper fire Tuesday to pull the bullet-riddled bodies of the dead from the streets and hide them from security forces, a day after a brutal government crackdown on the popular revolt against President Bashar Assad, witnesses said.
A man throws a rock at a passing tank in a location given as Daraa on Monday in this still image from an amateur video. (Reuters)

Syrian forces heaped more punishment Tuesday on residents of restive towns, detaining hundreds in raids or at checkpoints, firing on people trying to retrieve the bodies of anti-government protesters and even shooting holes in rooftop water tanks in a region parched by drought, witnesses said.

In the southern city of Daraa, where Syrian army tanks and snipers killed at least 34 people in two days, a resident said security forces shot and killed a man as he walked out of the main Omari mosque and shouted at them though a bullhorn: "Enough! Enough! Enough! Stop killing your brothers!"

The crackdown by President Bashar Assad has intensified since Friday, when more than 100 people were killed. Security forces also conducted raids in the Damascus suburb of Douma and the northern coastal town of Jableh.

A Syrian protester beats a poster of Syria's President Bashar Assad with a shoe, while attending a protest against the ongoing violence in Syria, in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)
Human rights groups estimate that more than 400 people have been  killed since mid-March as the Assad regime has tried to crush the uprising. But instead of intimidating protesters, it has emboldened them, and their calls for modest reforms have them now increasingly demanding Assad's ouster.

European leaders escalated their criticism of the Syrian crackdown, with the French president calling the current situation "unacceptable," and Britain's foreign minister raising the possibility of sanctions. Even the Arab League said that those in the region demanding freedom and democracy "require support, and not shooting with bullets."

The attack on Daraa — where the uprising began — appeared to be part of strategy of crippling, pre-emptive action against any opposition to Assad, rather than reacting to demonstrations. But the campaign of intimidation through violence and arrests was unlikely to work, according to a human rights worker, noting that every time Syrian forces surrounded or attacked one town, sympathetic protests broke out elsewhere nearby.

"When the army was sweeping through parts of Daraa, the people were demonstrating in other parts," said the activist, Rami Nakhla, who is based in Beirut. "All they are doing is increasing the people's determination."

Hundreds detained

Syrian residents contacted by The Associated Press on Tuesday reported hundreds of people detained in the towns of Daraa, Jableh and outlying neighborhoods of Damascus — either seized at checkpoints or in dawn raids. Detainees included all male relatives of the same family, a resident said.

"There's been a huge campaign of arresting people," Nakhla said.

Daraa residents braved fire from snipers and other troops to pull bullet-riddled bodies of protesters killed Monday off the streets and hide them from security forces, witnesses said.

One man, Zaher Ahmad Ayyash, was killed as he tried to retrieve the bodies of two brothers, Taysir and Yaser al-Akrad, said a resident, who asked to be identified only as Abdullah for fear of reprisal.

Those who managed to retrieve the corpses then hid them away, Abdullah said, suggesting that residents might face reprisal if troops discovered they had taken the bodies. As he spoke on the phone, gunfire popped in the background in Daraa 130 kilometres south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border.

"We can't bury the dead in the cemetery because it's occupied by Syrian soldiers," said Abdullah. "We are waiting to find another place to bury them."

In this photo released by Syria's official news agency SANA, Syrian military police carry a coffin as they prepare to send the bodies of 15 killed soldiers and security force members to their hometowns for burial Tuesday. The dead are believed to have been victims of the ongoing civil unrest against the government. (SANA/Associated Press)
Snipers also targeted Daraa residents' supply of water, shooting holes in rooftop tanks — the last source of clean water for many desperate residents of the parched region of 300,000 people, Abdullah said.

Troops cut off electricity to Daraa on Friday, and most food has spoiled in refrigerators.

Even as the crackdown intensified, however, there was quiet, defiant resistance. Abdullah said some soldiers were disobeying orders and allowing residents to pass through military checkpoints to find food and water.

Palestinian refugees living in the area smuggled flour, water, bread and canned food into town. "We are so grateful to them," the resident said.

Doctors arrested

Most doctors were arrested, leaving only two to treat the wounded — without fresh bandages or antiseptic, another resident said.

Similar scenes were reported in the northern coastal city of Jableh, which was attacked Friday, with residents hiding their dead and then furtively burying them in private plots of farmland — some as late as Tuesday — out of fear that the families of those killed might be arrested, a resident said. Also like Daraa, gunmen had shot holes in water storage tanks on rooftops as a form of punishment, he added.

The power outage in Daraa even silenced loudspeakers carrying the Muslim call to prayer.

But in an act of faith and defiance, people gathered on the streets at dusk even though troops had ordered them to stay indoors and began chanting the "adan," the call to prayer.

One resident in central Daraa watched as troops shot and killed Jamal Abu Nabout, who brought the bullhorn out of the Omari mosque — the epicentre of Monday's demonstration — and shouted through it for the gunmen to stop killing their fellow countrymen.

About 2,000 worshippers gathered in the ancient mosque that overlooks the city, refusing to allow soldiers to enter, a resident said.

Syrian state media reported that officials captured an "extremist terrorist cell" in Daraa, based in the Omari mosque. It quoted one detainee, Mustafa Ayyash, as saying that the cell was led by three Muslim scholars who told them to kill Syrian forces and accusing the troops of being Zionists. Ayyash claimed even five-year-old boys were ordered to carry weapons, the report said.

Foreign media banned

Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world. Residents contacted by the AP all spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisal.

In the Damascus suburb of Douma, which saw an intense crackdown Monday, houses were raided again at dawn Tuesday, with forces detaining anyone suspected of participating in demonstrations.

Soldiers at sandbagged checkpoints also held men deemed suspicious. Phone service was cut off, a resident said.

The streets of Douma were almost empty, with schools and most shops closed and uncollected garbage piling up. Security was heavy, with agents at checkpoints asking people for their identity cards.

In the seaside city of Banias, divided between Sunni Muslims and Alawites — the sect of the ruling Assad family and many key officials — about 5,000 people demonstrated peacefully in support of the citizens of Daraa, and there was no interference from security forces, activists said.

The U.S. stepped up demands that Syria halt its crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators but refused to question Assad's legitimacy. U.S. officials said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against Assad and his inner circle and conferring with European countries and the United Nations about options for Syria.

Sanctions considered

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons that the international community would have to consider sanctions against Assad if he undertakes "ever more violent repression, which can only bring short-term security for the authorities there."

"The situation has become unacceptable," added French President Nicolas Sarkozy at news conference in Rome with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. "You don't shoot at demonstrators."

Berlusconi urged Assad to fulfill promises of reform and "stop the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned Syria's use of force against demonstrators, called for an independent investigation and said he was convinced that "only an inclusive dialogue and genuine reform can address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and restore peace and social order."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Assad and urged him to show "restraint."

"We are worried about the current situation," Erdogan told a news conference, "We would not like to see an authoritarian and oppressive perspective in Syria. It is not enough for Syria to remove the state of emergency, there are so many more steps ahead to be taken."

with files from The Associated Press