BEIRUT (AP) - Masked gunmen dragged Syria's best-known political cartoonist from his car before dawn Thursday, beat him severely and left him bleeding along the side of a road days after he compared Syria's president to Moammar Gadhafi, human rights activists said.
Hospitalized with serious injuries, Ali Ferzat appears to have become the most famous victim of the repression of Syria's 5-month uprising _ a stark reminder that no Syrian is immune to the government crackdown.
Passers-by found Ferzat "heavily beaten and physically abused," said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize and track the uprising. Pictures published on online forums Thursday showed the artist in a hospital bed with heavily bandaged hands and a bandage right above his right eye.
Idilbi blamed security forces for the attack, although Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the identity of the attackers could not be confirmed.
Ferzat has said he had great hopes for Assad when he became president in 2000 after inheriting power from his late father. But in recent years Ferzat has become a vehement critic of the regime, particularly as the military launches a brutal crackdown on the country's protest movement.
This week, he published a cartoon on his website showing Assad with a packed suitcase, hitchhiking a ride with a fleeing Gadhafi. Many of his cartoons directly criticize Assad, even though caricatures of the president are forbidden.
"There are two things in this life that cannot be crushed _ the will of God and the will of the people," Ferzat told The Associated Press this month during a telephone interview from Damascus.
Ferzat benefited from Assad's moves to open up society in Syria during a period that came to be known as the Damascus Spring. Shortly after Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, he allowed Farzat to publish the country's first private newspaper in decades.
The satirical weekly Al-Domari _ or The Lamplighter _ was an instant hit, with copies of each issue selling out just few hours after hitting the stands. It was soon shut down, however, as Assad began cracking down on dissent after the Damascus Spring quickly lost steam.
Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising against his autocratic rule erupted in mid-March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
Activists said at least 11 people were killed on Wednesday, most of them in the central city of Homs.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and restricted local coverage, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground during a time of great upheaval in the country.
Assad has shrugged off international condemnation and calls for him to step down, insisting that armed gang and thugs are driving the violence, not true reform-seekers.
The crackdown has led to broad international condemnation and sanctions, although French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday ruled out intervening in Syria without international backing.
"As for Syria, the conditions for a military intervention are not in place ... France will not intervene without an international resolution. That's the basis," Sarkozy said during a news conference in Paris with Mahmoud Jibril, the head of Libya's opposition government.
"That doesn't mean that we can let the Syrian people get massacred by a regime that disqualifies itself from one day to the next," he said.
Also Wednesday, the European Union imposed sanctions against an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help Assad crush the revolt.
The sanctions broadened the international pressure against Syria by directly targeting its key ally Iran, which the U.S. and other nations have accused of aiding the crackdown.
The EU's official journal, which published the statement, said the Quds Force "has provided technical assistance, equipment and support to the Syrian security services to repress civilian protest movements."
Other new targets of the sanctions include several Syrian generals and close associates of Assad's younger brother, Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and special envoy for Bashar Assad, also was named.
The EU blacklist on Syria now contains 50 people and nine entities who face asset freezes and travel bans as punishment for one of the deadliest government crackdowns of the Arab Spring. Syria already is under broad sanctions from the U.S. and European countries, but calls for stricter measures have been on the rise.
Despite the harsh words, the Syrian crackdown continued.
Tanks stormed the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and made sweeping arrests there Wednesday, according to Syrian activists. Deir el-Zour is an oil-rich but impoverished region known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syria and into Iraq.
On Tuesday, European nations and the U.S. circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution seeking an arms embargo and other sanctions.
Syria has banned foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to independently confirm events on the ground. While widespread witness accounts and amateur video footage describe a brutal crackdown by security forces, Syria's state-run news agency says security forces are the real victims of gunmen and extremists.
Assad has exploited fears of chaos in Syria, with the regime portraying him as the only man who can guarantee peace in a country with a potentially volatile mix of religious groups.
The opposition, however, says the protest movement is free of sectarian overtones and is simply demanding freedom and democracy. The opposition took steps toward forming a national council Tuesday, but serious divisions have prevented them from presenting a unified front.