REPORTING FROM BEIRUT –- Fierce clashes broke out between security forces and army defectors in several parts of Syria on Sunday, activists said, as opposition supporters launched a general strike to press President Bashar Assad to step down.
Pressure has been mounting on Assad’s regime from inside and outside the country as the death toll from months of unrest continues to rise. The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March, when large-scale anti-government protests began, prompting a violent crackdown.
Some Syrians are now fighting back, including bands of defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.
The Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, has been warning for days about a possible bloodbath in the central city of Homs, where tanks are said to be massing and dozens of checkpoints being set up. The government denies an assault is imminent.
Syrian officials have from the beginning blamed the bloodshed on Islamic militants and armed gangs, which it says are supported from abroad. Assad said in a recent interview that the majority of the casualties have been members of the army and other security services.
As many as 23 people were killed Sunday as government forces clashed with armed insurgents and protesters in a number of provinces, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists that collects and disseminates information from around the country.
At least two were killed in predawn fighting in Kfar Takharim in the northwestern province of Idlib, where two armored troop carriers were set ablaze, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Government forces backed by tanks also stormed the southern village of Busra al-Harir, near the Jordanian border, activists and residents told Reuters news agency. Heavy explosions and machine-gun fire were heard in the town and to the north in Lujah, a hilly region said to harbor defectors.
The accounts could not be independently verified. Journalists are mostly barred from reporting in Syria and it was difficult to assess whether the strike was taking hold Sunday, the start of the workweek in Syria.
The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) called for the open-ended “Strike for Dignity,” which it described as the first step in a civil disobedience campaign to bring down Assad’s regime. The group said the campaign would evolve in stages and include student boycotts, store closures and a civil servants’ strike.
Amateur video was posted on YouTube purporting to show rows of shuttered stores and largely deserted streets in a number of cities and towns in the provinces of Idlib, Dara, Homs and Hama, which have been at the center of the uprising.
Students at the universities of Damascus and Aleppo were also taking part, along with some other areas in these provinces, the LCC said. But businesses, government offices and schools appeared to be functioning normally in the centers of Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s economic powerhouses.
"Here in Damascus it's business as usual,” said one resident of the capital, reached by telephone.
An activist reached in Dara said: “The security forces came and began breaking stores in the markets” that were participating in the strike in several cities and towns, triggering clashes with the Free Syrian army in at least one area.
Security forces also ransacked stores in the Damascus suburb of Douma, and in Kafernebol in Idlib province, where some businesses were set on fire, according to LCC.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency blamed the strike on “provocative parties” acting “within the framework of the political and economic campaign launched by the powers hostile to Syria, which aim to undermine the economic and social activities in the country and disable public life.”
The country’s economy is already hurting from several rounds of economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, Arab League, United States and former ally Turkey. But it also retains support from some of its neighbors and countries such as Iran, Russia and China.
In neighboring Jordan, the Syrian Embassy said a group of protesters entered the mission Sunday and beat up two diplomats, a security guard and several other staff members, according to the Associated Press.
-- Alexandra Zavis and Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Turkish and Syrian protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Assad in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday. Credit: Tolga Bozoglu / EPA