BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security agents tightened security and made sweeping arrests Saturday as President Bashar Assad tried to cut off two weeks of deadly pro-democracy demonstrations that are threatening his family’s ruling dynasty.
The death toll from two weeks of protests was around 80 people, after at least seven were killed Friday in clashes with security forces. Authorities began arresting dozens of people, mostly in and around the capital, Damascus, in the hours after the protests broke up and into early Saturday, activists said.
They asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the Assad family’s 40-year dynasty, one of the most rigid regimes in the Middle East.
In the city of Douma, near Damascus, security forces were taking strict measures and checking identity cards of people trying to enter or leave, a resident said. At least five people were killed in Douma on Friday.
“Some shops are open but there is tension. Many people are staying home,” the resident said on condition his name not be published for fear of government reprisals. “There are a lot of security patrols. I have never seen Douma like that.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern about the violence and called on Syria’s government to address the “legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
The government blamed Friday’s bloodshed on “armed gangs.” However, the state-run news agency acknowledged for the first time that Syria was seeing gatherings of people calling for reform.
The strength of the burgeoning protest movement is difficult to gauge because Syria has restricted media access and expelled journalists, making it difficult to determine the extent of the protests and how many people are turning out. Two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country Friday with less than an hour’s notice.
Assad has made limited gestures of reform in the wake of the protests, but he has offered no specifics.
In his first public appearance Wednesday since the demonstrations began, he blamed a “foreign conspiracy” for the unrest. He then announced he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria’s despised emergency laws, which have been in place for decades and allow security forces to arrest people without charge.
His reaction enraged many Syrians who hoped to see more serious concessions after the wave of protests in a country where any rumblings of dissent are crushed.
The unrest comes against the backdrop of revolutionary change across the wider Middle East, including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The violence in Syria could have implications well beyond the country’s borders, given its role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
The protests also have brought the country’s internal, sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades. Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria. But he also has increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes. Dissenters have been punished with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.
Assad inherited power 11 years ago at the age of 34 after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades.