Syrian troops and security officials stepped up their crackdown on anti-government protesters yesterday, killing at least four people as they stormed a besieged mosque at the centre of the uprising.
The military intervention in the southern city of Daraa coincided with the arrests of 11 women during a silent protest in Damascus, and new claims that President Bashar al-Assad's ruling Baath Party had suffered a series of resignations over the bloody way the rebellion is being tackled.
President Assad and his aides were warned again last night by William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, that they must show "restraint" in the face of demonstrations.
An organised 90-minute assault on the Omari mosque in Daraa involved at least four tanks, snipers, soldiers with machines guns and paratroopers descending from helicopters. Residents in the town opposed to President Assad's regime had been hiding behind barricades all week as the authorities shut off water supplies, and marksmen reportedly shot at anybody trying to venture out of the building.
Among those killed when troops moved in yesterday was said to be the mosque's imam, Sheik Ahmad Sayasna. The building, now cleared of protesters, was being tightly guarded yesterday evening. Human rights activists from the Syrian group Sawasiah claimed that 560 pro-democracy demonstrators have died at the hands of government forces since mid-March, although the ruling party insists "armed groups" and "terrorists" with no connection to the military have been responsible for many deaths. Families of the dead have reportedly been encouraged to sign documents clearing the army of involvement. Large funerals for those killed have been outlawed.
The toll leapt significantly during clashes on Friday, the bloodiest day in the six-week stand-off, when 65 were reported dead. The rising number led to the women's silent march in Damascus, with banners reading "no to killing".
Protests were also reported in the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama. Scores of men and women are unaccounted for in these regions, although it is not known whether they have been killed or detained. Two veteran opponents of the government, Hassan Abdul Azim, 81, and Omar Qashash, 85, were arrested yesterday. Foreign journalists, meanwhile, remain banned from entering the country.