Syrian crackdown gathers pace

Syria’s security forces have stepped up their crackdown on protesters amid warnings that the rising death toll is fuelling more widespread anger and radicalising demonstrators.

As a local human rights organisation put the death toll from last Friday’s protests at 37, with most of the casualties reported in the southern city of Deraa, activists said the unrest had spread at the weekend to the coastal town of Banias.

According to a Reuters report, a group of people carrying sticks was guarding a mosque in Banias during morning prayers when the so-called Shabbiha – armed thugs loyal to the regime – fired at them from speeding cars, injuring five people.

Security forces were said to be surrounding the port city and communications were cut. Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer, said residents of Banias were holding two armed men who they said were members of Syria’s security forces.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad maintains that shadowy armed gangs have been responsible for the killing of protesters – arguing that, in fact, police forces have also been targets.

Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer, dismissed the government’s narrative as fantasy, and said the regime’s policy was to escalate the bloodshed in the hope of putting down what is increasingly turning into a nationwide uprising.

The attack on Banias on Sunday came after protests spread across the country on Friday, with thousands taking to the streets of Deraa despite a massive regime crackdown in the town.

Reports suggested that the slogans, which have focused on demands for freedom and political reform, were more radical on Friday in Banias, with people demanding the overthrow of the regime.

Syria’s interior ministry has warned it will not tolerate breaches of the law and will deal with “armed groups”. Meanwhile Mr Assad at the weekend was quoted by the state news agency as saying that Syria was moving on the road of “comprehensive reforms”.

But while Mr Assad’s regime has offered a series of concessions, particularly to two groups – Kurds and religious conservative segments of society – so far it has done little to meet the demands for political reforms and the lifting of emergency laws.

Analysts in Damascus said that after several weeks of protests and an escalating death toll – human rights groups say at least 90 people have been killed since last month – the regime was facing a dilemma.

“If they let people protest they know that the crowds will get much larger and the demands for freedom mean they want a different regime. But firing on protesters is also not working and it will make the demands and the people more radicalised,” said a political analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “The regime doesn’t really know what to do.”

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