DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian security forces kept crushing dissent town-by-town and rounding up opposition leaders on Thursday, activists said, in an unrelenting crackdown that Washington has slammed as “barbaric.”
The army and security services arrested dozens of people in the flashpoint coastal city of Banias and the neighbouring villages of al-Beyda and al-Qariri, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The London-based group said lawyer Jalal Kindo was among those detained on Thursday in the Mediterranean city of Banias, where security forces have been hunting down dissidents and protest organisers.
The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group organising protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, called for a “Free Women Friday” in support of women demonstrators in custody.
“On May 13, we will demonstrate for the dignity of our arrested sisters,” the group said.
Several female protesters have been arrested in recent weeks, particularly in Damascus and Banias, where women marched calling for the release of their detained relatives and an end to the army’s assault on protest hubs.
Four women were killed during May 7 protests, activists said.
Late on Wednesday, thousands of students defied the crackdown to stage a protest in Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo before being dispersed by baton-wielding loyalists and security force personnel, a rights activist said.
At least 19 civilians were killed on Wednesday as troops and unidentified gunmen assaulted protest hubs across the country, firing on some and encircling others with tanks, according to accounts by human rights activists.
Among the dead was an eight-year-old boy, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, Ammar Qurabi, told AFP.
Sniper fire killed 13 people, including the youngster, in the village of Al-Harra, near the protest centre of Daraa, south of Damascus, Qurabi said.
Tank fire killed five people in the Baba Amr district on the outskirts of the central industrial city of Homs. Another civilian died in Jassem, near Daraa, he added.
Two soldiers were killed and five others wounded in clashes with “armed terrorist gangs” in the protest hubs of Homs and Daraa, state news agency SANA reported.
Between 600 and 700 people have been killed and at least 8,000 arrested since the start of the protest movement in mid-March, human rights groups say.
The Syrian authorities insist they are pursuing “armed terrorist gangs.”
In Washington, the State Department denounced the crackdown as “barbaric”.
Syrian authorities “continue to extend their violent actions against peaceful demonstrators,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“These repressive measures — namely the ongoing campaign of arbitrary arrests, the denial of medical care to wounded persons, the inhumane conditions of detainees — are barbaric measures that amount to collective punishment of innocent civilians.”
Toner added that “we don’t throw the word ‘barbaric’ around here very often” but that in this case, “the window is narrowing for the Syrian government to shift focus from its outright repression towards meeting the legitimate aspirations of its people.”
Analysts said the Obama administration is still reluctant to call for an end to Assad’s increasingly repressive regime fearing that a revolution in Syria could bring chaos to a key part of the Middle East with significant repercussions for Lebanon, Iran and beyond.
Russia, a traditional Damascus ally, rejected calls for a special UN Security Council meeting on Syria to condemn the crackdown.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc will look at fresh sanctions this week against Assad’s regime after already homing in on his inner circle.
“We started with 13 people who were directly involved” in cracking down on protests, she told European MPs pressing her to explain why Assad was spared.
“We’ll look at it again this week,” she added. “I assure you that my intention is to put the maximum political pressure that we can on Syria.”
Protesters are demanding free elections, the release of political prisoners, constitutional changes that would strip the ruling Baath party of its domination of Syrian political life and remove restrictions on other parties and the media.
Last month, under pressure from the international community, Assad lifted nearly five decades years of emergency rule but the iron-fisted crackdown on protesters has continued unabated.