AMMAN, (Reuters) – Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed eight people across Syria overnight, activists said on Friday, in a sustained campaign to crush street protests against his rule buoyed by the demise of Muammar Gaddafi’s power in Libya.
Many of the deaths occurred as a result of attacks on street demonstrations demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family domination that have been breaking out daily after Ramadan prayers that follow the breaking of the fast, they said.
“Congratulations to the Libyan people,” read signs carried by protesters who marched at night demanding Assad’s removal in the town of Kisweh, where thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights live, just south of Damascus.
“God is with us. The revolution is bringing together the free,” shouted demonstrators in the resort town of Zabadani, west of the capital and near the border with Lebanon.
Any power shakeup in Syria would have major regional repercussions. But Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite sect still has alliances with an influential Sunni business class, a loyalist core in the army and security apparatus facing little resistance in crushing protests anywhere in the country.
The 45-year president, who inherited power from his late father in 2000, has pursued parallel policies of strengthening ties with Iran and Shi’ite Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah while seeking peace talks with Israel and accepting European and U.S. overtures that were key in rehabilitating him on the international stage.
In an interview with state television broadcast on Sunday, Assad said he was responding to armed unrest and that he would not bow to Western pressure because “reform for colonialist states among the West means to offer them all what they want and sell out all rights.”
The activists said on Friday seven of the protesters were killed in the city of Hama, which has been besieged by the military since the beginning of Ramadan on August 1, in the countryside of Aleppo to the north, in the northwestern province of Idlib and in Homs, hometown of Assad’s wife Asma.
“The best response to Assad is the peaceful street protests we are seeing as another Arab autocrat falls in Libya,” said dissident Adib Shishakli, grandson of one of Syria’s earliest presidents after independence from France in 1946.
The eighth civilian casualty was a Turkish truck driver killed by a pro-Assad militia on the main highway leading to Turkey in the town of Rastan just north of Damascus, which has been scene of daily assaults to end street protests, the activists said.
YouTube footage showed a body purportedly of the Turkish national at a local hospital and his passport.
Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists since the uprising erupted in March, making it difficult to verify events on the ground.
Syria is a main land transport route from Europe to the Middle East, but businessmen said Turkish transit truck traffic to Syria has fallen sharply after Ankara, once a strong supporter of Assad, criticizing his bloody repression against a five month uprising, which the United Nations said has killed 2,200 people.
The uprising has damaged other Syrian economic sectors, with investment taking a hit, tourist numbers falling, businesses laying off workers and the West stepping up sanctions on the Assad family and some of their business partners.
European Union diplomats said on Wednesday the bloc’s governments were likely to impose an embargo on imports of Syrian oil by the end of next week, although new sanctions may be less stringent than those imposed by Washington.
A disruption would cut off a major source of foreign currency that helps to finance the security apparatus, and restrict funds at Assad’s disposal to reward loyalists and continue a crackdown
The official state news agency said “armed terrorist group” killed three soldiers who were manning a roadblock in Rastan on Wednesday in the second such attack in two days. Local activists said pro-Assad forces clashed with soldiers who had defected in the Sunni Muslim city.
The Syrian army is dominated by officers from the minority Alawite sect, the same sect as Assad, whose feared brother Maher controls the military. The rank and file are mostly Sunni, like the majority population in Syria.
Since Ramadan began on August 1, tanks have entered the cities of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, Deir al-Zor and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, trying to crush dissent after months of street protests.
Prominent cartoonist and Assad critic Ali Ferzat was beaten up in Damascus by a group of armed men and then dumped in the street, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman, Ferzat was taken to hospital with bruises to his face and hands, in the latest assault on members of the intelligentsia critical of the repression.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the “regime’s thugs focused their attention on Ferzat’s hands, beating them furiously and breaking one of them – a clear message that he should stop drawing.”
“Many other moderate activists who oppose violence have been jailed for speaking out against the regime … Some have been held for months incommunicado,” she said.
Ferzat, whose cartoons often mock repression and injustice in the Arab world, has criticized Assad’s repression of protests. He told Al Arabiya television three weeks ago: “For the first time there is a genuine and free revolution in Syria.”