AMMAN When neighbors warned him that security forces were breaking into shops to forcibly end a week-long general strike in the Syrian city of Deraa, Ahmad Bajbouj rushed to reopen his furniture showroom on one of the city's main shopping streets.
Residents said hundreds of soldiers fanned out across Deraa's main commercial street, smashing windows and threatening anyone who refused to end the strike which was called to protest President Bashar al-Assad's intensifying military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"Merchants are opening their shops under threat of force. The security forces had smashed shops last night and warned that anyone who does not open will find a security personnel in their shop," Salem Jawabreh, a butcher in the Mahatta area of Deraa, said by telephone.
"People were afraid of damage to their property."
Deraa, in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, was the cradle of the uprising against 41 years of Assad family rule, and has been hit hard by the crackdown by forces loyal to the president.
The city was brought to a virtual standstill by the eight-day strike, which spread to other major cities, including the city of Homs in northwestern Syria.
The resilience of the strike showed how much anti-regime sentiment had hardened during seven months of demonstrations and violent crackdown, activists said.
"There is hardly anyone who does not have a son, cousin or brother who has been arrested or disappeared," said Mamoun Abu Nabout, a resident of the Mahatta area of Deraa.
"There is so much blood, many say there is no point of return until the regime falls."
Previous calls for strikes had failed, and calls for workers in the public sector to stay at home had in the past met lukewarm support.
Residents in Deraa said businesses and shops were slowly retuning to normal Thursday as store workers and shoppers returned to the commercial district of the city, a major trading hub on the southern Syria plain.
Fruit and vegetables were again on display in the Hisba market, where only a few stalls had opened over the week and all were shuttered Wednesday, the peak of the strike.
Commuter buses packed with public sector employees from the rural areas were returning to the city's main station.
In Herak, a large town around 30 km (20 miles) north of Deraa, businesses also reopened. Seasonal workers poured into the city that has seen years of migration from its rural surroundings by villagers seeking jobs.
The strike illustrated the growing strength of a new young clandestine leadership behind the protests, who residents say have taken local public officials in Deraa by surprise with their organizational skills.
Witnesses said masked youths took to the streets at night hanging posters and writing graffiti on school walls, shops and public buildings in support of the strike and warning businessmen against opening up.
"There are many merchants who complained about the closure and said their interests were hurt but had no choice but to heed the calls of the activists with such a strong climate of public opinion in their favor," said Ahmad Aba Zaid, an instructor in a vocational college.
Activists said the strike had emboldened the people of Deraa to expand their defiance beyond daily protests to acts of civil disobedience.
"The strike had many meanings. It gave us confidence that if we are able to go that far (then) we are capable of doing much more as long as the street is with us," said an organizer who calls himself Abu Salman.
(editing by Rosalind Russell)