Syrian gov’t makes mass arrests in protest hub

Deraa residents say authorities are detaining all males over the age of 15; Rebels say a soldier from Assad's elite army unit defected.

Protestors in Syria 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protestors in Syria 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian authorities are carrying out a wave of arrests in the city of Deraa in their latest move to crush protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad, residents said on Sunday.
Amateur video footage continues to seep out of the country, providing a clearer picture of the brutal crackdown waged by the Assad regime against mostly peaceful protesters.
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Footage obtained by Reuters showed blood spurting from the heads of teenagers inside the city. “He has a pulse. He has a pulse,” one teenager shouts next to the blood-soaked body of a youth in jeans. “No, no. Martyr.
Martyr,” he says as his comrades rush to carry the body under a hail of machine gun bullets. The video is believed to have been taped Friday.
More footage shows a similar scene at a road leading to Deraa, where young villagers on motorcycles rushed on Friday to support their relatives under a weeklong siege.
“God is greater. Down with Bashar,” the villagers chant as a hail of bullets hits the crowd. A youth falls down with a bullet in his back. “Say the shahadeh,” whispers one youth in the ear of a comrade, referring to the Muslim declaration of faith.
Yet another video posted by opposition websites purported to show a member of the elite Republican Guards who said he had defected after being ordered to fire on unarmed protesters in Damascus.
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The Republican Guards – the only military unit allowed into the capital – are essentially a presidential guard unit with extremely close links to the regime.
The video could be one of the first signs of defection within units of the Syrian Army, which for decades was under the control of Assad’s minority Alawite sect.
Deraa residents said they had seen packed bus loads of handcuffed and hooded young men being taken in the direction of a large detention center in the city run by the security services.
“They are arresting all males above 15 years. They only have old security tactics and they are acting on revenge,” said a prominent lawyer in Deraa, who requested anonymity.
A Deraa witness who identified himself as Adnan Hourani told Al-Jazeera television that security forces had divided the southern Syrian city into four sections – each cut off from the others – and had gathered all the detainees in schools and were preparing to transfer them.
Assad sent troops backed by dozens of tanks into Deraa on April 25 to silence the revolt against his 11-year rule. Power and communications in Deraa have been disrupted.
On Saturday, tanks shelled the old quarter, and security forces stormed the Omari mosque, a focal point for protests.
“It is a ghost city this morning. At dawn we heard machine gun bursts that scared birds. But it’s mostly quiet now,” said Abu Haytham, a government employee, on Sunday.
Residents said dozens of corpses stored in two refrigerator trucks parked near the mosque – where snipers were seen standing by the minaret – started to decompose after the trucks ran out of diesel.
Overnight rain diluted the pools of spattered blood on the streets, spreading it into wider patches, residents said.
Women and children chanted from rooftops until the early hours, shouting “God is greatest against the tyrant!” Newly appointed Prime Minister Adel Safar was quoted on Saturday by state news agency SANA as saying his government would draw up a “complete plan” of political, judicial and economic reforms in the coming weeks.
But the pledge was unlikely to dampen the intensity of protests.
In Washington, the Obama administration is coming under increased pressure to take decisive action against the Syrian regime. On Thursday, US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman said Assad’s government has “lost the legitimacy to remain in power in Syria.”
In a statement, they urged Obama “to state unequivocally – as he did in the case of Gaddafi and Mubarak – that it is time for Assad to go.”
The following day, the White House levied sanctions against three leading members of the Damascus government – but the measures neither affect Assad himself, nor call for the Syrian leader’s resignation.
The Washington Post wrote in its Sunday editorial, “A Strategy of Slowness?” that the US administration has reacted to the Syria crisis with “extraordinary passivity.”
“Not until Friday – when at least 42 more civilians were reportedly gunned down – did the administration finally take its first, tangible steps to pressure the regime, by bringing Syria before the UN Human Rights Council and imposing sanctions on several officials,” it said.
Reuters contributed to this report.