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SYRIA: Mass arrests reported ahead of Friday prayers

July 21, 2011 |  9:06 am

Syria protester funeral

Troops and militiamen loyal to Syrian leader Bashar Assad appear to be stepping up military operations and mass arrests in a crackdown on anti-regime protesters ahead of Friday prayers, dubbed a day of national unity by organizers.

Syrian activists said Thursday that Assad's troops were shelling neighborhoods in the central city of Homs -- an area where dozens of people reportedly have been killed over the last week-- and that snipers were firing from rooftops.

"The dead and injured inside the houses can still not be reached due to shelling and snipers opening fire on any moving object on the streets," said an activist network, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria.

Mass arrests were also reported in certain neighborhoods of Homs as detentions across the country appear to have intensified.

According to U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, more than 2,000 people have been arrested in Syria during the past month. They included demonstrators, medical workers who have treated injured protesters, and individuals who allegedly have disseminated information to media organizations, according to new research published by the organization Wednesday.

In total, about 15,000 detainees linked to the four-month-long uprising are in Syrian jails, a representative from the coordination committees told Babylon & Beyond. Tens of thousands more, added the spokesman, have been temporarily detained in the uprising against Assad that began in mid-March.

Areas targeted in the intensified arrest sweeps, according to Human Rights Watch, include Homs and the resistance stronghold of Hama, also in the central part of the country. Security forces and military units have also arrested scores as they fanned out across the suburbs around the capital, Damascus, where protests have grown in recent weeks, the rights group said.

Most recently, it said, a group of about 20 plainclothes security officers descended on the home of prominent opposition activist George Sabra, a Christian whose arrest contradicts claims made by the regime that the protesters are Sunni Muslim extremists. The officers went through the house and confiscated his files before whisking him away, according to the rights group.

"They searched the house and took his computer and his mobile," his wife told the organization. "All they said is, 'You are wanted,' but nothing about what security branch they were from, where they were taking him, or why he was being arrested. ... Until now, we have heard nothing more about him."

The reports of mass arrests and continued detentions go on despite the recent launching of the so-called national dialogue initiative, a government-sponsored forum purportedly aimed at finding a solution to Syria's crisis and moving the country to a multi-party democratic political system. Many from the opposition boycotted the conference.

"President Assad talks reform but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch's Middle East director. "Who does President Assad mean to include in his 'national dialogue' when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him?"

Coinciding with the Human Rights Watch report, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement on Wednesday denouncing the violence in Syria and calling on authorities there "to stop repression immediately."

"The mass arrests of protesters are not consistent with serious reform and should stop," he said.

Another strategy said to be used by the Assad regime is to target the families of activists when the activists themselves cannot be found or are in the hiding.

On July 15, troops reportedly surrounded Qatana, a town near Damascus, following demonstrations and started to carry out mass arrests the day after. The Local Coordination Committees said at least 520 people were picked up in the security sweep.

According to Human Rights Watch, members of the Syrian security forces stormed the house of 61-year old dissident writer Ali Abdullah, breaking furniture and arresting him. The soldiers, according to the human rights group, claimed that they were looking for Abdullah's 26-year old son, Omar, who is in hiding. Abdullah was released a few days later.

Authorities have also reportedly gone after Web activists. One protest organizer, now outside the country for security reasons, told Babylon & Beyond that he was targeted several times by Assad's hackers, but he dismissed them as "amateurs."

"When they planted a Trojan [horse virus] on my computer, I manually caught it and removed it after a week," he said. "Unfortunately, most people think it's courageous using their full names on Facebook when commenting against the regime and that is how they get caught -- the only way they get caught."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A recent funeral for a protester in Homs. Credit: Reuters

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