Crackdown escalates in east Syria, protesters killed

AMMAN Thu Jul 14, 2011 7:46pm EDT

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces shot dead two pro-democracy protesters on Thursday in eastern provincial capital Deir al-Zoran, residents said, as a crackdown escalated against dissent in the tribal region bordering Iraq's Sunni heartland.

Military intelligence agents also injured seven protesters who had gathered in the main square of the city on the Euphrates river to protest against President Bashar al-Assad whose family has ruled Syria with an iron fist since 1970.

Ultra-loyalist army units also expanded a campaign to crush dissent in the northwestern province of Idlib bordering Turkey and in the city of Homs, where residents said two civilians were killed when security forces stormed the Bab Sebaa neighborhood.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one soldier was also killed in the attack on the main residential district.

"A crowd of 1,500 had shown up for the usual noon demonstration despite the intense heat. Thousands more have descended on the square after the killings, and there are now around 10,000 people there," said one witness, a computer programer who declined to give his name for fear of arrest.

Despite being the center of Syria's modest oil production, Deir is among the poorest regions in the country of 20 million people.

The desert area has suffered water shortages for six years which experts say have been caused largely by mismanagement and corruption, and have decimated agricultural production.

Syrian authorities have allowed Sunni tribes in Deir al-Zor to carry arms against the threat seen posed by a Kurdish population further north.

MINORITY RULE

Assad, from Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Islam, is struggling to put down spreading protests in rural and tribal regions, in suburbs of the capital and in cities such as Hama and Homs -- all demanding an end to his autocratic rule.

Mass arrests and the heavy deployment of security forces, including an irregular Alawite militia known as shabbiha, have prevented protests in central Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo.

Four villagers were killed on Wednesday in tank-backed assaults on at least four villages in the Jabal al-Zawya region in Idlib, activists said.

"We are seeing a military escalation following the regime's political escalation," said an activist in Idlib, referring to the thousands of arrests in a crackdown that has intensified in the last two weeks, according to human rights campaigners.

Among those arrested was physician Ahmad Tuma, a respected opposition leader from Deir, who was abducted from his clinic by Military Intelligence agents last week, his friends said.

Security forces arrested at least 30 people on Wednesday, including prominent film directors Nabil Maleh and Mohammad Malas, known for works chronicling malaise under Assad family rule, and actress May Skaf, during a pro-democracy protest in Damascus, rights organizations said.

They were among a group of artists who issued a declaration this week denouncing state violence against protesters and demanding accountability for the killings of civilians and the release of thousands of political prisoners held without trial.

International powers, including Turkey, have cautioned Assad against a repeat of massacres from the era of his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, who crushed leftist and Islamist challenges to his rule, culminating in the killing of up to 30,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982.

The U.S. and French ambassadors visited Hama in a show of support last Friday. Three days later their embassies were attacked by Assad loyalists. No one was killed in the attacks which were condemned by the United Nations Security Council.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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