- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

BEIRUT (AP) — Pro-government gunmen launched an attack on two villages in Syria’s northeast on Tuesday, two days after security forces shot dead four protesters in the same region, a leading Syrian opposition figure said.

Protests that erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago have steadily grown, with tens of thousands calling for sweeping reforms in what is one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. More than 170 people have been killed so far.

Haitham al-Maleh said attackers Tuesday were using automatic rifles in Bayda and Beit Jnad. The villages are near Banias, where security forces killed four pro-reform protesters on Sunday. Al-Maleh said villagers have told him there were casualties in Tuesday’s attack.

A resident from a third village nearby said he could hear cracks of heavy gunfire coming from the two villages.

“Some residents of the two village took part in the anti-regime protests in Banias,” the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals. The remark raise concern Tuesday’s attack meant to intimidate the villagers in the wake of the deadly Banias event.

Also Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Syrian security forces prevented medical staff from reaching the wounded in at least two towns that saw clashes with anti-government protesters last week.

The statement by the New York-based rights group urged Syrian authorities to allow those injured in the violence “unimpeded access” to medical treatment.

Meanwhile, Syria’s leading pro-democracy group, the Damascus Declaration, urged the Arab League in Cairo to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Syria and put “political and diplomatic” pressure on Damascus to protect civilians. The Syrian group said more than 200 people have been killed in the turmoil across the nation.

The Human Rights Watch said security forces did not allow ambulances to approach the road to pick up the wounded after prayers last Friday in the southern town of Daraa and in Harasta, near Damascus. About three dozen people died in the violence that day.

“To deprive wounded people of critical and perhaps life-saving medical treatment is both inhumane and illegal,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Barring people from needed medical care causes grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm.”

The Syrian group’s statement, issued late Monday, said people have been protesting peacefully “but bullets were the response of security forces.” It said the Syrian regime ordered international media to leave the country in order to prevent the “revealing of atrocities the regime inflicted against the people.”

It urged the Arab League to impose political, diplomatic and economic sanctions against the regime in Damascus.

On Monday, security forces killed a student during a protest at Damascus University, activists said. There were conflicting reports about whether the student was shot or beaten to death.

Also Monday, international pressure mounted on Syrian President Bashar Assad, with key European governments and the United Nations denouncing the deadly crackdown that has failed to dampen the popular uprising.

After the protests began, Assad promised to form committees to look into the possibility of reform. Other gestures included granting citizenship to thousands of Kurds, the country’s long-ostracized minority, and sacking his Cabinet.

Syria’s leaders talk about political reform, but they meet their people’s legitimate demands for reform with bullets,” Whitson said.

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