According to Damascus-based human rights researcher Wissam Tarif, protesters were gathered in the al-Omari mosque in the heart of the old city and had turned it into a makeshift hospital for those wounded as government soldiers fired on them with automatic weapons and artillery.
Elsewhere in town, the streets were said to be deserted as tanks fired shells and snipers took up positions on rooftops, shooting at anyone who moved. The Associated Press quoted a resident as saying that the bodies of those killed were left unattended in the streets because the gunfire was so intense, citizens were unable to go outside to retrieve them. Human rights groups said in statements posted on the Internet that at least 35 people had died in two days of violence.
The deployment of the army Monday in the town that had become the epicenter of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government seemed to leave little doubt that Syrian authorities have resolved to confront the escalating protest movement with full-scale repression. Reports from the town said the unit involved was a crack brigade of the army’s special forces led by the president’s younger brother Maher.
With video footage showing tanks moving through the streets and plumes of smoke caused by artillery fire, the crackdown in the rural town is rapidly approaching Libyan proportions, with one crucial difference: The opposition movement in Syria is not armed.
At least 401 people have been killed in the six-week-old uprising, with an additional two dozen or so deaths awaiting confirmation from families, said Tarif, whose human rights group, Insan, has been monitoring the violence. Independent confirmation of the events was impossible because the Syrian government refuses to admit foreign journalists.
Thousands of people have been arrested since the protests began, Tarif said, and there were reports Tuesday of widespread detentions and a heavy troop presence in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Moadamiya, and in the coastal town of Jableh.
The escalating violence stirred the fiercest criticism of Damascus yet from world leaders, though there was no indication that the international community was ready to take formal action to condemn or sanction a regime whose collapse many fear could trigger widespread regional instability.
“The situation has become unacceptable,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a joint news conference in Rome with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. “You don’t send tanks, the army, against demonstrators. You don’t fire on them.”
Berlusconi added: “Together we send a strong call to Damascus authorities to stop the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations, and we ask all sides to act with moderation.”
In Washington, the State Department’s head of policy planning, Jake Sullivan, also condemned the crackdown, telling reporters that Assad’s actions were “completely inconsistent with those of a responsible leader.”
But he stopped short of saying that Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead, a comment used to describe Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi after he cracked down on protesters, and Sullivan said U.S. sanctions were an option only “under consideration.” The U.S. Embassy in Damascus is preparing to evacuate nonessential personnel, but the ambassador, Robert Ford, will remain, he said.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, in Washington to meet with his U.S. counterpart, Robert M. Gates, bluntly told reporters that there are limits to what the world can do to influence the outcome of domestic rebellions.
“We can’t do everything all the time, and we have to recognize that there are practical limitations to what our countries can do,” he said after meeting with Gates.
Gates also indicated that the United States has no immediate plans to toughen its stance. “Our response to each country will have to be tailored to that country and to the circumstances peculiar to that country,” he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a short statement after a closed-door meeting of the Security Council, calling on Syrian authorities “to protect civilians.” But with China and Russia already expressing misgivings about the U.N.-mandated air campaign in Libya and unwilling to take further action against Middle Eastern leaders facing domestic opposition, imminent action by the United Nations also seemed unlikely.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, defended his government’s conduct, saying that Assad has instructed Syrian forces not to fire on civilians and that the government is committed to allowing peaceful demonstrations. He accused armed groups, including al-Qaeda, of infiltrating the demonstrations and opening fire on Syrian security forces, killing dozens of them.
Ja’afari rejected U.N. calls for an outside inquiry into the killings, saying the government has established its own investigation committee. “We don’t need help from anybody,” he said.
‘People are not afraid’
Syrian democracy activists said they were anxiously hoping for a more robust international response, by way of encouraging ordinary Syrians to sustain their opposition in the face of the spiraling violence.
Activists said the bloodshed would not deter further demonstrations and predicted that the crackdown would energize the protest movement.
“People are not afraid anymore of anything,” said Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer in Damascus. “They are just preparing for Friday,” the day on which protesters typically rally after noon prayers, “and we know we must pay a price for our freedom.”
But there have still been no major demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, or in Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo, and some activists fretted that the intensity of the crackdown may halt the momentum that had seemed to be building, by discouraging ordinary citizens from joining the protest movement.
The discrepancy between the international response to the violence in Syria and that in Libya, where NATO warplanes are waging daily bombing raids, is increasingly drawing criticism in Europe and may intensify pressure on governments to take action.
“We are very tough vis-a-vis Gaddafi, and we say nothing vis-a-vis Syria,” said Jean-Christophe Cambadelis, a member of the French Parliament from the opposition Socialist Party. “It is incomprehensible.”
Sullivan, the State Department official, denied that there is any inconsistency in the U.S. positions on Libya and Syria. “We have to take each of the countries on its own terms,” he said.
Staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Craig Whitlock in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.