Syrian troops wave to residents of Dara as they leave the hub of protests… (Louai Beshara, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Cairo and Beirut — Syrian authorities intensified a crackdown on opposition activists Thursday, arresting hundreds of people ahead of another planned day of demonstrations after weekly prayers, witnesses said.
Soldiers stormed Damascus' Saqba suburb, entering homes and detaining residents, according to witnesses and antigovernment activists. In At Tall, another Damascus suburb, more than 800 people were arrested Thursday, witnesses said.
"They pretended that they were following an organized list when they carried out the arrests, but in reality, it was just a random selection of young men that were detained," said an activist in the capital who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation by authorities.
Since March 15, at least 542 people have been killed by Syrian security forces attempting to squash a peaceful popular uprising against the 5-decade-old Baath Party regime, according to Amnesty International.
At a joint appearance in Rome on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad must be pressured to end the violence. Clinton said the U.S. plans to boost sanctions against Syrian leaders, and Frattini said Italy would support similar measures by the European Union.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken with Assad on Wednesday and urged him to carry out reforms rather than continue the crackdown, which he said may be violating human rights.
Neither protesters nor the government has relented. Activists predicted another day of large protests Friday, even as the Interior Ministry warned Syrians to stay home and troops were deployed around the country.
"Every week we are seeing more people protesting in the streets," said Beirut-based activist Rami Nakhle, who emphasized that the government must change. "We know there's no turning back. If we go back, they'll arrest and kill us in a brutal way."
A video posted online purportedly showed Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint Thursday in Saqba. They had set up similar checkpoints in the capital itself, as well as in Baniyas, Homs, Hama and the other Damascus suburbs of Duma and Daraya, activists said.
At the same time more troops were deployed to the opposition strongholds of Rastan and Homs as well as the coastal city of Baniyas, where one activist said 3,000 people showed up for an antigovernment rally Thursday.
Activists and witnesses dismissed claims by Syrian officials that the army had withdrawn from the key southern city of Dara, where the uprising started. Although a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said officials allowed delivery of humanitarian supplies and food to Dara, activists said soldiers probably under the command of Assad's brother Maher were continuing offensive operations.
Human rights groups complained that security forces were pursuing a sweeping campaign of mass arrests. Witnesses in Nawa, near Dara, said hundreds of security agents and dozens of tanks arrived Wednesday.
One 33-year-old mechanical engineer who asked not to be identified said he was detained in Damascus on Wednesday morning when security forces raided the home where he was staying. He was held at an intelligence station overnight without being charged, he said, and released late Thursday.
He said he returned home to the southwestern town of Suwayda, passing military checkpoints on the outskirts of the capital.
"The military is surrounding the area with heavy equipment and machines," he said. "The tension is high."
Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Cairo and special correspondent Hajjar from Beirut.