Syrian security forces have arrested 200 residents in a coastal town as unprecedented challenges to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad continued to spread, a human rights lawyer said on Wednesday.
"They brought in a television crew and forced the men they arrested to shout 'We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar' while filming them," the lawyer, who was in contact with residents in Baida, 10 km (six miles) south of the Mediterranean seaside city of Banias, told Reuters.
|A tank is seen in the Syrian port city of Banias April 10, 2011.|
The lawyer, who did not want to be further identified, said the events occurred on Tuesday.
"Syria is the Arab police state par excellence. But the regime still watches international reaction, and as soon as it senses that it has weakened, it turns more bloody," the lawyer added.
Assad, who tried to position Syria as self-declared champion of "resistance" to Israel while seeking peace with the Jewish state and accepting offers for rehabilitation in the West, has responded to the protests with a blend of force -- his security forces have killed unarmed protesters -- and promises of reform.
But the mass public demands for freedom and an end to corruption, now in their fourth week, have yet to abate.
Syrian secret police and soldiers surrounded Baida on Tuesday, and went into houses, arresting men up to 60 years old. Gunfire was heard earlier in the day and one man was killed, the activists said.
They said Baida was targeted because its residents participated in a demonstration in Banias last week in which protesters shouted: "The people want the overthrow of the regime" -- the rallying cry of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.
One activist said some residents of Baida had weapons and it appeared that an armed confrontation had erupted.
But Sheikh Anas Airout, an imam in nearby Banias, said Baida residents were largely unarmed and that they were paying the price for their non-violent quest for freedom.
Irregular Assad loyalists, known as 'al-shabbiha', killed four people in Banias on Sunday, a human rights defender in the city said, raising tensions in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites, adherents to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Banias, home to one of Syria's two oil refineries, remained sealed off overnight and around 20 tanks were stationed near the northern and southern entrances of the city.
The protests against 48 years of autocratic Baath Party rule erupted in the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan, expanding to the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the northeast, the coast and areas in between.
But with heavy secret police presence and Assad maintaining backing from the Sunni merchant class and preachers on the state payroll, the protests have not spread to Damascus proper and to Syria's second city Aleppo. This has robbed the demonstrations of the critical mass they attained in Tunisia and Egypt.
Authorities blame armed groups and "infiltrators" for the violence, in which they say civilians, soldiers and police also have been killed.
Syria's main human rights movement said the death toll from pro-democracy protests had reached 200 and urged the Arab League to impose sanctions on the ruling hierarchy.
"Syria's uprising is screaming with 200 martyrs, hundreds of injured and a similar number of arrests," the Damascus Declaration group said in a letter sent on Monday to the secretary general of the Arab League.