AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian forces stepped up raids across the country to arrest activists on Sunday after one of the bloodiest weeks in the six-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, residents and activists said.
Dozens of people were seized in house-to-house raids in the eastern tribal province of Deir al-Zor, in the southern Hauran Plain and in villages around the city of Hama, which was among the hardest hit by armoured assaults on protest flashpoints.
A lawyer from the southern city of Deraa, cradle of the revolt against 41 years of Assad family rule, said he saw dozens of troops encircling the nearby village of Yadouda.
“I saw them by accident and fled. I heard that they later went into houses. They can come at any minute and raid and arrest,” the lawyer, who asked not to be named, said by phone.
Syrian authorities do not comment on arrests but have said in the past that any arrests are made in accordance with the constitution. They say they are fighting armed gangs who have killed at least 500 security personnel.
In a sign of growing impatience among Arab neighbours, Gulf foreign ministers meeting in Saudi Arabia voiced their “deep concern over continued bloodshed in Syria and the use of the military machine.” They demanded “an immediate stop to the killing machine … and immediate reforms to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Saudi media said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman, said prominent human rights campaigner Najati Tayara, 66, was badly beaten on Friday while he was being interrogated at a prison in his home city of Homs.
Tayara, a former political prisoner, was arrested in May.
The United Nations says 2,200 people have died in the uprising that erupted in mid-March. A Syrian grassroots organization says security forces have killed 3,000 civilians.
Syria has banned most independent journalists, making it hard to verify accounts of the violence from either side.
The Syrian Human Rights Organization Sawasiah said at least 113 civilians were killed last week in military raids and in gunfire aimed at protesters, including a family of five in Homs.
It said in a statement that three activists also died from apparent torture in prison in what it said was an increased drive by the authorities to eliminate street protest leaders.
“Last week saw unprecedented repression. The rights of many Syrians to live free of physical harm has been confiscated, among them women, children and elderly people,” it added.
Syrian demonstrators, while opposed to any foreign military intervention, have begun demanding international protection.
The Arab League’s secretary-general said after visiting Damascus on Saturday that he had agreed with Assad on unspecified measures to end the bloodshed which would be presented to an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.
Nabil Elaraby also said he had urged Assad to “speed up reform plans through a timetable that will make every Syrian citizen feel that he has moved to a new stage.”
Assad has announced some reforms such as ending emergency law and launching a “national dialogue.” Opponents say these have made little difference.
Prominent opposition figures met in Istanbul for a second time in as many months over the weekend to try and come up with a list for a national council to represent the uprising.
Opposition sources said the group was due to hold talks later on Sunday by phone with Burhahn Ghalioun, a dissident academic in Paris who had proposed his own list. Differences remain between the groups and with figures inside Syria.
Loaay Hussein, a prominent dissident in Damascus whose name appeared on Ghalioun’s list announced over the weekend the formation of a movement called The Current for Building the Syrian State. The aim would be to “bring an end to the despotic regime and transform Syria into a democratic and civil state.”
The West, which had courted Assad before the uprising, has imposed sanctions on the ruling elite. The European Union plans tougher steps against Syria’s small oil sector.
But there has been no hint in the West of any appetite for military action along the lines of the NATO bombing that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Syria has three times Libya’s population and has complicated ties with neighbours on the faultlines of mid-East conflicts.
In the town of Hirak in Deraa province, Ahmad al-Sayyed, a resident, said Syrian troops had been carrying out daily swoops to quell dissent.
“They have stepped up arrests in towns that have seen heavy protests and that have managed to send video feeds to al-Jazeera,” he said, referring to the popular Qatar-based satellite television channel.
He said many people had been detained in the towns of Jeeza, Museifra, Busra al-Harir and Naimeh in the last 48 hours.
“They shoot in the air before they begin raids. They then drag young men and use electric sticks to beat them up and haul them away to detention centres,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a 40-year-old woman was killed by bullets fired by security forces at random in the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border while they were pursing wanted people.
In the Damascus suburb of Darayia, residents said 17-year-old Ahmad Kamal Ayrout died of wounds sustained when security forces fired at a funeral on Saturday for Ghayath Matar, an activist who died in prison from apparent torture.
“Ghayath was 25. He used to organize campaigns to clean the streets while he was growing up. In recent protests in Darayia he used to give flowers to soldiers. He was arrested last week and his body returned with torture marks to his family,” said an activist in Darayia who did not want to be named.
A YouTube video purportedly of Matar’s body showed a youth in a coffin with red and brown marks on his chest and stomach.
“He was an outspoken voice for non-violence and they still killed him,” the activist in Darayia said.