BEIRUT | Residents of the southern Syrian city of Daraa braved sniper fire Tuesday to pull the bullet-riddled bodies of the dead from the streets and hide them from security forces, a day after a brutal government crackdown on the popular revolt against President Bashar Assad, witnesses said.
As heavy gunfire reverberated through Daraa, a Syrian human rights group said authorities detained dozens of people across the country, mainly in several Damascus suburbs, including the town of Douma and in the northern coastal city of Jableh.
A relentless crackdown since mid-March has killed more than 400 people across Syria, with 120 dead over the weekend, rights groups said. That has only emboldened protesters who started their revolt with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Mr. Assad’s downfall.
The Syrian army, backed by tanks and snipers, launched a deadly raid before dawn Monday on Daraa, where the uprising began more than a month ago, and on the towns of Douma and Jableh. At least 22 people were killed in Daraa.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.
The White House has stepped up its condemnation of Mr. Assad’s regime, but stopped well short of demanding his ouster. U.S. officials said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against him, his family and his inner circle to boost pressure on them to halt the repression.
Washington was conferring with European countries and the United Nations about options.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain also was working with other members of the U.N. Security Council “to send a strong signal to the Syrian authorities that the eyes of the international community are on Syria.” The U.N. planned to discuss Syria later Tuesday.
The United States told all its nonessential staff and the families of all its embassy workers to leave the country, but kept the facility open for limited services. It also advised all Americans to defer travel to Syria and advised those already in the country to leave. On Sunday, Britain urged its citizens to leave Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Mr. Assad and urged him to show “restraint.” Turkey’s ambassador met Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar to express “deep concern and sorrow” over the many lives lost, the prime minister’s office and the Turkish media reported.
Syria has a pivotal role in most of the flash-point issues of the Middle East - from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran’s widening influence. Instability has thrown into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington’s hopes to peel the country away from Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.