Syrian soldiers take up positions before protests
BEIRUT – Syrian soldiers rolled into flash point cities in tanks and set up sand barriers topped with machine guns Thursday, as President Bashar Assad's deadly crackdown on dissent pulled the country deeper into international isolation.
On the eve of another round of large protests, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton slammed the government's assault on demonstrators and said the violence showed Assad is weak, though she stopped short of saying he must quit.
"Treating one's own people in this way is in fact a sign of remarkable weakness," Clinton said during a trip to Greenland.
Assad, 45, is determined to crush the two-month-old uprising despite international pressure and sanctions from Europe and the United States. His government has led one of the most brutal crackdowns in the wave of popular revolts sweeping the Arab world.
Protests organizers were calling for more demonstrations Friday despite military operations and arrest raids meant to pre-empt the rallies.
"Authorities are detaining any person who might demonstrate," Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Associated Press.
In the northern city of Deir el-Zor, authorities placed cameras inside and outside the Osman bin Afan mosque, where many worshippers have been demonstrating after Friday's Muslim prayer services, he said.
Abdul-Rahman added that many former detainees were forced to sign documents saying that they were not subjected to torture and that they will not take part in future "riots."
A Western diplomat said 2,000 people have been detailed over the past two weeks, with a total of around 8,000 since the Syrian government launched its crackdown. The official, who demanded anonymity to share assessments of the situation in Syria, said Western nations believed that between 600 and 800 people have been killed so far.
A video dated April 27 in the southern city of Daraa emerged Thursday showing a sniper shooting two people on a motorbike, then preventing residents from rescuing them or getting close.
People in the street could be heard screaming "Traitors!" at the security forces.
Also Thursday, Syrian soldiers and tanks surrounded the city of Hama, which President Assad's father laid waste to in 1982 to stamp out an earlier uprising, an activist said. Forces also used clubs to disperse 2,000 demonstrators on a northern university campus on Wednesday night.
In the central city of Homs, a resident said soldiers set up sand barriers with machine guns perched on top. He added that three tanks were still in the area, despite a report by the private daily Al-Watan that said the army has pulled out of the city after completing its mission.
"It seems they are getting ready for tomorrow," the resident said.
Most witnesses contacted by The Associated Press spoke on condition that their names not be published out of fear for their personal safety. The government has imposed a media blackout, refusing to let most journalists in and restricting access to trouble spots.
The revolt was touched off in mid-March by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Since then, the protests have spread nationwide and the death toll already has exceeded those seen during the uprisings in Yemen and Tunisia.
The government's bloody crackdown has increased in intensity in recent days. The army shelled residential areas in central and southern Syria on Wednesday, killing 19 people, a human rights group said.
The shelling of neighborhoods evoked memories of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez, whose most notorious act was the shelling of Hama in 1982.
He leveled the city to crush a Sunni uprising there, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates. Conflicting figures exist and Syria has made no official estimate.
Al-Watan newspaper reported Thursday that Assad met for four hours with a delegation of Sunni clerics from Hama. It said the clerics asked the president to solve some problems pending since 1982, such as people who have been living in exile since then.
"President Assad accepted to study the case as long as it includes people who are known to be loyal to the nation," the paper said.
Since the uprising began, authorities have been making announcements about reforms on Thursdays in an attempt to head off protests on Friday.
This week was no different: The state-run news agency, SANA, said Prime Minister Adel Safar introduced a new program to employ 10,000 university graduates annually at government institutions.
Unemployment in Syria stands at about 20 percent.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the Syrian attacks "barbaric," adding, "We don't throw the word 'barbaric' around here very often."
Officials in the Obama administration, which had sought to engage Syria after it was shunned under former President George W. Bush, said Tuesday the U.S. is edging closer to calling for an end to the long rule of the Assad family.
The officials said the first step would be to say for the first time that Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a major policy shift.
Clinton repeated U.S. denunciations of the crackdown on Thursday and said Syrian authorities "engage in unlawful detention, torture, and the denial of medical care to wounded persons."
On Friday, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said his government is ramping up targeted financial sanctions against key regime figures responsible for human rights abuses and is also imposing an embargo on arms and other equipment used for internal repression.
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Nuuk, Greenland, and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue