AMMAN (Reuters) – Security forces arrested hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in cities across Syria after taking control of the city of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule.
Looking for men under 40 years old, security forces broke into houses on Sunday in the old quarter of Deraa that a tank-backed force led by Assad’s brother Maher shelled into submission the day before, witnesses told Reuters by telephone.
The state news agency SANA said on Monday army units tracked down “terrorist groups that have terrorized civilians (in Deraa)…and killed 10 of its members and arrested 499 of them.”
SANA quoted an army source as saying that in addition to the 10 dead, security forces also killed five snipers who were shooting at pedestrians. The source told SANA that two members of the security forces were also killed in clashes.
Syrian protesters deny that they have weapons and are using them in the unrest, targeting 48 years of Baath Party domination in Syria and inspired by other popular Arab revolts that have overthrown the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt this year.
Prominent rights campaigners were also arrested in the eastern cities of Qamishli, Raqqa and in suburbs of Damascus, along with scores of ordinary Syrians active in the mass protests demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.
CIVILIAN DEATH TOLL AT 560–RIGHTS GROUPS
Syrians kept up protests despite the arrests and violent repression that has resulted in the killing of at least 560 civilians by Assad’s security forces, human rights groups say.
In the central city of Homs, thousands marched on Sunday chanting “downfall of the regime!”
In Rastan to the north, a funeral was held for 17 men killed when military intelligence agents fired at a protest on Friday during which the names of 50 resigning members of Assad’s Baath Party were being read out.
Signs of discontent have been also emerging in the majority Sunni Muslim ranks of the army commanded by officers from the minority Alawite sect, to which the Assad family belongs.
Two thousand Kurds in the village of Karbawi near Qamishli attended the funeral of 20-year-old conscript Ahmad Fanar Mustafa. His father accused security forces of killing him for refusing to take part in the repression.
Fanar Mustafa refused to let the governor of the province attend the funeral of his son. “They kill and then they want to march in the funeral of the murdered,” the father was quoted as saying by a witness at the funeral.
In Deraa, where the protests first broke out on March 18, a witness said young men in the old quarter fled to safety in neighboring villages to the west as security forces dragged 450 men under the age of 40 from their homes.
The witness, a trader who ducked Syrian security and crossed into the Jordanian city of Ramtha on Sunday, said the authorities were cleaning Deraa of blood from dozens of youths killed by machinegun fire.
Security forces drove away two trucks with the bodies of 68 civilians killed since Assad sent tanks into Deraa on Monday.
“Bullets are their response to the people’s revolt. The security forces who came to Deraa told us ‘Go buy bread from a bakery called Freedom. Let’s see if it feeds you’,” said a prominent lawyer in Deraa who declined to be identified further.
Foreign media are banned from Syria, making it harder to confirm accounts of events in the country.