More gunfire, arrests reported in Syrian crackdown

BEIRUT (AP) — Residents of the southern Syrian city of Daraa braved sniper fire Tuesday to pull the bullet-riddled bodies of the dead from the streets and hide them from security forces, a day after a brutal government crackdown on the popular revolt against President Bashar Assad, witnesses said.

As heavy gunfire reverberated through Daraa, a Syrian human rights group said authorities detained dozens of people across the country, mainly in several Damascus suburbs, including the town of Douma and in the northern coastal city of Jableh.

A relentless crackdown since mid-March has killed more than 400 people across Syria, with 120 dead over the weekend, rights groups said. That has only emboldened protesters who started their revolt with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Assad’s downfall.

The Syrian army, backed by tanks and snipers, killed at least 22 people in a raid launched before dawn Monday on Daraa, where the uprising began more than a month ago. Security forces also conducted raids in the towns of Douma and Jableh.

World leaders expressed concern at the mounting bloodshed, with the United States starting to draw up sanctions against Assad, diplomats hoping to send a strong signal to Damascus from the United Nations, and the prime minister of neighboring Turkey telephoning the Syrian leader to urge restraint.

The assault on Daraa appeared to be part of new strategy of crippling, pre-emptive action against any opposition to Assad, rather than reacting to demonstrations.

It took more than a day for residents of Daraa to start pulling many of the bodies off the streets of Daraa, with rooftop snipers and army forces firing on people who dared to leave their homes. One man, Zaher Ahmad Ayyash, was killed as he tried to retrieve the bodies of two brothers, Taysir and Yaser al-Akrad, said a resident, who asked to be identified only as Abdullah for fear of reprisal.

The corpses were hidden away after they were retrieved from the streets, Abdullah said, suggesting that residents might face reprisal if troops discovered they had taken the bodies. As he spoke on the phone, gunfire popped in the background.

“We can’t bury the dead in the cemetery because it’s occupied by Syrian soldiers,” said Abdullah. “We are waiting to find another place to bury them.”

Snipers also targeted water tanks on rooftops in Daraa — the last source of clean water for many desperate residents of the parched region of 300,000 people, Abdullah said.

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