AMMAN (Reuters) - Women and children in the besieged Syrian city of Deraa chanted “God is greatest against the tyrant” from rooftops in the night after troops backed by tanks intensified a crackdown on the city, a resident said.
Troops stormed into Deraa, cradle of a six-week-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule, a week ago to try to crush protests that have spread across the country of 20 million. Power and communications have been disrupted.
On Saturday, tanks shelled the old quarter of the southern city and security forces stormed the Omari mosque, a focal point for protests.
“The shelling has intensified. It is the worst night. Women and children are on their rooftops chanting ‘God is Greater’ against the tyrant,” one resident, who lives in the Manshia neighborhood in the old quarter told Reuters by telephone.
He said security forces were entering homes and dragging men onto buses.
The chants echoed the calls of Iranian protesters who took to rooftops in Tehran chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Greatest) during post-election unrest in 2009.
Foreign correspondents have largely been excluded from Syria since the protests escalated and the crackdown began.
A Syrian rights group said at least 560 civilians have been killed in the six-week-old uprising in support of demands for greater political freedom and action against corruption that has flourished under the Baath Party, in power since 1963.
The uprising, unthinkable only months ago, flared after mass protests toppled authoritarian leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrations spread in Bahrain and escalated to civil war in Libya.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying his government would in the coming weeks draw up a “complete plan” of political, judicial and economic reforms.
The pledge was unlikely to dampen the intensity of protests. A severe crackdown followed the once-unthinkable gesture of lifting a decades-old emergency law this month.
The government also has little influence as Assad, his family and the security apparatus has a stranglehold on power.
Syria blames armed groups for the violence. On Friday soldiers killed 19 people when they fired on protesters who were trying to enter Deraa from nearby villages in a show of solidarity, a medical source said. Syrian rights groups put Friday’s death toll at 62.
SANA quoted an official military source as saying on Saturday that army and security forces units had been chasing “armed terrorist groups” who had attacked properties in Deraa.
The source said six members of the group were killed in the operation, 149 wanted people were arrested, and a large cache of weapons and ammunition had been seized. Two members of the security forces were also killed and seven wounded.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Ralph Boulton