Syria arrests hundreds, shells Deraa into submission

AMMAN Sun May 1, 2011 6:54pm EDT

1 of 5. EDITOR'S NOTE: PICTURE TAKEN ON GUIDED GOVERNMENT TOUR A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad holds aloft a photograph of the president at Hamidiya market in Damascus April 30, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Security forces arrested hundreds of pro-democracy sympathisers in cities across Syria after taking control of the city of Deraa, cradle of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule.

Looking for men under 40 years old, security forces broke into houses Sunday in the old quarter of Deraa, which a tank-backed force led by Assad's brother Maher shelled into submission the day before, witnesses told Reuters by telephone.

Prominent rights campaigners were also arrested in the eastern cities of Qamishli, Raqqa and in suburbs of Damascus, along with scores of ordinary Syrians active in mass protests demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption.

Syrians kept up the protests despite the arrests and violent repression that has resulted in the killing of at least 560 civilians by Assad's security forces, human rights groups say.

In the central city of Homs thousands marched chanting "downfall of the regime."

In the town of Rastan to the north a funeral was held for 17 men killed when military intelligence agents fired at a protest Friday during which the names of 50 resigning ruling Baath Party members were being read.

Signs of discontent have been also emerging in the majority Sunni army, which is controlled by minority Alawite officers, the same sect as Assad.

Two thousand Kurds in the village of Karbawi near Qamishli attended the funeral of 20-year-old conscript Ahmad Fanar Mustafa, whose father accused security forces of killing for refusing to take part in the repression.

Fanar Mustafa refused to let the governor of the province attend the funeral of his son.

"They kill and then they want to march in the funeral of the murdered," the father was quoted as saying by a witness at the funeral.

In Deraa, where the protests first erupted on March 18, a witness said young men in the old quarter fled to safety in neighboring villages to the west as 450 men under the age of 40 were dragged from their homes.

The witness, a trader who ducked Syrian security and crossed into the Jordanian city of Ramtha Sunday said the authorities were cleaning Deraa of blood from dozens of youths killed by machinegun fire.

Security forces drove away two trucks with the bodies of 68 civilians killed since Assad sent tanks into Deraa Monday.

"Bullets are their response to the people's revolt. The security forces who came to Deraa told us 'Go buy bread from a bakery called Freedom. Let's see if it feeds you'," said a prominent lawyer in Deraa who declined to be identified further.

Foreign media are banned from Syria.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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