AMMAN (Reuters) - Secret police raided homes near Damascus overnight, rights campaigners said on Sunday, as popular opposition to Syria’s authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad increased following bloody attacks on pro-democracy protesters.
Security forces and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed at least 112 people over the last two days. They fired at protesters demanding political freedoms and an end to corruption on Friday and on mass funerals for victims a day later.
The attacks were the bloodiest, and the demonstrations the biggest, since protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa near the border with Jordan over five weeks ago.
Security operatives in plain clothes wielding assault rifles broke into homes in the suburb of Harasta just after midnight on Sunday, arresting activists in the area, known as the Ghouta, or the old garden district of the capital.
Assad lifted an emergency law on Thursday, in place since his Baath Party seized power 48 years ago, in a bid to appease protesters and ease international criticism. Opponents say the crackdown that followed shows the move was hollow.
“Bashar al-Assad, you traitor, you coward. Take your soldiers to the Golan,” protesters chanted on Saturday, chiding Assad for turning his forces on his own people instead of recapturing the Golan Heights, where the frontier with Israel has been quiet since a 1974 ceasefire.
Assad assumed power when his father died in 2000 after ruling Syria for 30 years. The hostile chants reflect a steady hardening of the demands of protesters who first called for greater freedoms but now seek his overthrow.
International condemnation of Assad has also intensified. Western criticism was initially muted because of lingering hopes that Assad might implement genuine reform and because revolution in Syria could reshape the political map in the Middle East.
Assad has strengthened his father Hafez al-Assad’s anti-Israel alliance with Iran and supported militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. He also re-established Syrian influence in Lebanon and has held indirect peace talks with Israel.
“I deplore the increasing violence in Syria, and am appalled by the killing of demonstrators by Syrian security forces,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sunday, advising all British nationals to leave Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama urged Assad on Friday to stop the “outrageous use of violence to quell protests.” Syrian authorities, who blame the violence on armed groups, dismissed Obama’s comments.
The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said prominent rights activist Daniel Saud, a resident of the Mediterranean city of Banias, was also arrested on Saturday.
The weekend protests stretched from the port city of Latakia to Homs, Hama, Damascus, its suburbs and southern towns. The death toll rose to around 350, with scores of missing since the demonstrations broke out on March 18, rights campaigners said.
Assad has ejected most foreign media from the country during his crackdown on protesters, so independent reports of the violence are difficult to verify.
Demonstrators have been using the Internet to get out pictures of the violence, many of which have been explicit.
One video posted on Internet site YouTube showed a crowd marching on Friday near Abbasside square in Damascus, purportedly on Friday, chanting “the people want the overthrow of the regime,” before the sound of gunfire was heard.
Demonstrators raised their hands to show that they were unarmed. The fire intensified. One youth fell, with blood spurting from his head and back. His comrades lifted him but dropped his body when the sound of bullets resumed.
In Abada village, 10 kilometers from Damascus, rights campaigners said security forces were preventing people injured in Friday’s protests from reaching hospital. A cleric in contact with the town of Nawa near Deraa said residents told him security forces had fired indiscriminately.
In a move unthinkable in Syria just five weeks ago, two Deraa lawmakers in Syria’s rubberstamp parliament resigned on Saturday to protest against the killings of protesters.
Editing by Robert Woodward