Exact casualty figures were hard to obtain because most people were trapped indoors, and residents said bodies were lying unattended in the streets because it was too dangerous for ambulances to reach them. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 42 people were killed; the global advocacy group Avaaz put the toll at 27; an activist in Deir al-Zour said 58 died.
Activists said at least 12 people were killed in similar assaults on towns in the southern province of Daraa, the central province of Homs and the northern province of Idlib. There also were reports of fresh bombardments, additional deaths and mass arrests in Hama, the first target of the offensive, which was launched last week.
“It’s massive, brutal and determined,” said Wissam Tarif, an activist with Avaaz. “They are just killing people everywhere.”
The assault on Deir al-Zour echoed the push launched a week ago against the central city of Hama, where human rights groups say at least 200 people have been killed, leaving little doubt of the government’s intent to use force to crush the nearly five-month-old uprising that has threatened to overturn five decades of Baath Party rule.
Like Hama, Deir al-Zour had effectively fallen under the control of the protesters, who had erected barricades to keep the military out, enabling them to stage massive rallies that routinely drew tens of thousands of people.
Moreover, the city’s remote desert location near Iraq gives it a special sensitivity because many of its residents have family ties to tribes in the Iraqi province of Anbar and, like their kinsmen, typically keep weapons, raising the specter of armed confrontations between the military and anti-government forces.
There also have been unconfirmed reports of army defections in Deir al-Zour, though none seem to have amounted to a significant challenge to the government. An activist contacted via Skype said that about 350 defected soldiers had taken refuge among residents of two western neighborhoods that troops had not invaded.
Although many people in the city keep AK-47s for personal protection, activists were urging them not to turn their weapons against the advancing troops for fear of inviting worse retribution, said the activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety.
“The most important thing is that our revolution remain peaceful,” he said. “Though people keep weapons to defend themselves, they haven’t used them at all.”