Security forces moved into central Syria and coastal areas before prayers yesterday in a test of will for demonstrators determined to maintain protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a show of force, tanks have taken up positions near the urban centers of Homs, Rastan and Banias in the past two days.
Last week, Assad ordered the army into Daraa, cradle of the uprising that began with demands for greater freedom and an end to corruption, and is now pressing for al-Assad’s removal.
An ultra-loyalist division led by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad shelled and machine-gunned Daraa’s old quarter last Saturday, residents said. Syrian authorities said on Thursday the army had begun to leave Daraa, but residents described it as a city still under siege.
Troops were also deployed in the Damascus suburbs of Erbin, Saqba and Douma, and in the town of Tel, north of the capital.
A senior diplomat said demonstrations after prayers yesterday, the only chance Syrians have to gather legally, were expected to increase “incrementally, not massively” in number compared with a week ago when tens of thousands took to the streets.
Human rights campaigners say security forces killed at least 62 civilians, including 17 in Rastan alone, during those protests.
A doctor who planned to take part in yesterday’s demonstrations said: “Indiscriminate killings and inhumane arrests have generated total disgust among the average Syrian.”
“Soldiers with rifles no longer deter people. The propaganda that this regime is the only guarantor of stability no longer washes,” he said.
The US, which had joined a European drive to improve ties with al-Assad, called the attack on Daraa “barbaric.”
Aid workers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent delivered their first emergency relief supplies to Daraa on Thursday, bringing drinking water, food and first aid materials. They had no immediate information on casualties in the city.
Human Rights Watch cited figures from Syrian rights groups saying 350 people had been killed in Daraa. It urged authorities yesterday to “lift the siege” on the city and to halt what it called a nationwide campaign of arbitrary arrests.
“Syria’s authorities think that they can beat and kill their way out of the crisis, but with every illegal arrest, every killing of a protester, they are precipitating a larger crisis,” Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
Diplomats said the EU could reach a preliminary agreement on imposing sanctions on Syria’s ruling hierarchy yesterday, but it had yet to decide whether al-Assad should be included.
Iran, which the US accused of helping al-Assad in his efforts to crush the demonstrators, said Syria’s rulers were aware of plots by the US and Israel to destabilize its only Arab ally.
Human rights campaigners say army, security forces and gunmen loyal to al-Assad had killed at least 560 civilians during seven weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. Thousands of people had been arrested and beaten, including the elderly, women and children, they said.