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SYRIA: Government lays siege to Dara, intensifies nationwide crackdown [Video]

April 26, 2011 |  1:15 pm

Government forces continued their assault on the key southern city of Dara on Tuesday as authorities tightened their grip on mobility and communication throughout Syria in an attempt to smother the protest movement gripping the country.

"The situation is very hard, moving from street to street means anxiety and ... martyrdom," a witness in Dara told the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera. "Tens have fallen and we cannot even remove the bodies from the streets."

Heavily armored troops backed by snipers reportedly opened fire on civilians for a second day after storming the city and cutting off electricity and phone networks, making reports that at least 25 people had been killed since Monday impossible to verify.

The video featured above claims to be shot on Tuesday in Dara and appears to show a small group of protesters facing off against an armored vehicle, appealing to the army for help and chanting "The army is with us" before coming under fire. As the rattle of gunfire quiets, the chanting starts again: "We're not afraid, the army is with us."

Reports of cracks within the armed forces have bolstered hope among some protesters that President Bashar Assad's grip is slipping, but Syrian military officers recently told the Los Angeles Times that they feared for their own lives if they resisted orders to fire on demonstrators.

A witness who was able to approach the outskirts of the besieged city reported clear signs of violence, including scorched cars and defaced images of the president and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

Picture 5 The crackdown in Dara appears to have had a chilling effect on the rest of the country, with activists reporting hundreds arrested and homes raided in cities and towns across the country as Internet and phone service became increasingly inconsistent. Activists reported three people were killed in the city of Duma near Damascus by security forces Tuesday morning, but this information could not be verified.

An activist in Damascus said the restive suburbs were under heavy surveillance, with army checkpoints set up between neighborhoods and security forces arresting anyone deemed suspicious.

"Movement is not what it should be in the country, and communications are down," the activist said by Skype.

The activist expressed confidence, however, that the protest movement has not been quelled, and dismissed state media reports that Salafist or puritanical Islamist groups were behind the demonstrations.

"People are waiting for Friday because it's the only day they can gather," he said.

Friday Muslim prayers have become a weekly flashpoint for protests since the alleged arrest and torture of a group of teen vandals in Dara sparked the first antigovernment mobilization more than a month ago.

Thursday, Assad approved a number of reforms intended to appease protesters, including a decree that supposedly allows citizens to apply for permits to hold peaceful demonstrations.

But just one day later, on what has become known among activists as "great Friday," security forces opened fire on protesters in 14 towns and cities around the country, killing more than 100 people. The following days saw more unrest, pushing the death toll to about 400 civilians since the uprising began, according to the Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah.

Despite the intensity of the crackdown, protests were reportedly held in several cities Tuesday. Witnesses said about 50 doctors held a demonstration in Aleppo demanding the release of all medical personnel and students arrested in recent weeks.

People "are afraid that the same thing which happened to Dara will happen to them," said a university student in the northern port city of Baniyas, where several thousand people turned out Tuesday to demand more political freedom.

"Schools and jobs are supposedly open today but no one is going because people are afraid," he said. "The city is paralyzed."

-- Meris Lutz and Roula Hajjar in Beirut

Video: Footage claims to show protesters in Dara on Tuesday appealing to the army to join them. Credit: YouTube