AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops in tanks and armored vehicles poured into the southern town Deraa and opened fire on Monday, residents said, in the latest bloodshed in a crackdown on protests that has escalated sharply in recent days.
As the army tried to regain control of Deraa, where a month-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted last month, campaigners said forces also stormed the Damascus suburb of Douma, which has seen large anti-Assad protests.
Rights groups say security forces have killed more than 350 civilians since unrest began. A third of the victims were shot in the past three days as the scale and breadth of a popular revolt against Assad grew.
Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency on Thursday but activists say the violence the following day, when 100 people were killed during protests across the country, showed he was not serious about addressing calls for political freedom.
Monday’s raids on Deraa and Douma appeared to show that Assad, who assumed power when his father died in 2000 after ruling Syria with an iron fist for 30 years, was determined to crush the opposition with force.
Residents in Deraa said hundreds of troops had arrived.
One witness told Reuters he could see bodies lying in a main street near the Omari mosque after eight tanks and two armored vehicles deployed in the old quarter of the city.
“People are taking cover in homes. I could see two bodies near the mosque and no one was able to go out and drag them away,” the witness said.
Snipers were posted on government buildings, and security forces in army fatigues had been shooting at random at houses since the tanks moved in just after dawn prayers.
“They were firing. Witnesses have told me that there have been five deaths so far and houses have become hospitals,” another Deraa resident named Mohsen told Al Jazeera, which showed what appeared to be a cloud of black smoke over the town.
Tanks at the main entry points of the city were also shelling targets in Deraa, Mohsen said. “People can’t move from one street to another because of the shelling.”
Foreign journalists have mostly been expelled from the country, making it impossible to verify the situation on the ground. Grisly footage posted on the Internet by demonstrators in recent days appears to show troops firing on unarmed crowds. Officials have blamed armed groups for the violence.
Despite deepening his father Hafez al-Assad’s alliance with Iran, clawing back influence in Lebanon and backing militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, Assad has kept Syria’s front line with Israel quiet and held indirect peace talks with the Jewish state.
Western criticism of Assad’s crackdown, initially muted, has grown recently. President Barack Obama urged Assad on Friday to stop the “outrageous use of violence to quell protests.”
Writers from all Syria’s main sects also issued a declaration denouncing the crackdown, a sign of anger surging through the intellectual elite.
Monday’s declaration, signed by 102 writers and journalists, in Syria and in exile, called on intellectuals “who have not broken the barrier of fear to make a clear stand.
“We condemn the violent, oppressive practices of the Syrian regime against the protesters and mourn the martyrs of the uprising.”
Activists said government troops and gunmen loyal to Assad shot dead at least 13 civilians since they swept into the Mediterranean town of Jabla on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The forces and gunmen loyal to Assad deployed in the old Sunni quarter of Jabla on Sunday after a pro-democracy protest the previous night and a warning by the governor of the province to residents not to assemble publicly, rights campaigners said.
Activists said they feared Assad’s forces also were preparing for an attack on the town of Nawa, north of Deraa, after reports of bulldozers and military vehicles heading there. Thousands of people called for the overthrow of Assad on Sunday at a funeral in Nawa for protesters killed by security forces.
Electricity and communications were cut off in parts of the town by the evening and residents, some armed, erected barriers in the streets in preparation to defend against attack.
“Long live Syria. Down with Bashar!” mourners chanted at the funeral. “Leave, leave! The people want the overthrow of the regime.”
In Banias, south of Jabla, protest leaders said they would cut the main coastal highway unless the siege on Jabla was lifted. Jabla is home to large numbers of members of Assad’s Alawite minority who had generally stayed away from protests.
At least 100 people were killed across Syria on Friday, the highest toll of the unrest, when security forces shot protesters demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption in their country, ruled for 41 years by the Assad dynasty.
Another 12 people were killed on Saturday at mass funerals for slain protesters. Rights campaigners said secret police raided homes near Damascus and in the central city of Homs on Sunday, arresting activists.