Dissidents arrested in Damascus as Britain tells nationals to leave

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The Independent Online

Dozens of activists were arrested in Syria yesterday as Bashar Assad's regime continued the brutal crackdown that left at least 112 people dead in two days of state-sanctioned violence.

The security forces began their sweeps of opposition groups late on Saturday in a move that seemed to reinforce protesters' claims that Assad's abolition of the hated emergency laws would have little bearing on the treatment of peaceful protesters.

In an acknowledgement that tensions were rising in Damascus and beyond, the British government yesterday advised all British nationals to leave Syria, urging them to get out "while commercial airlines are still flying" and saying there had been a "rapid deterioration in the security situation".

That warning came after the biggest wave of civil unrest to have hit Syria since the uprising began in March saw at least 82 people reportedly shot dead on Friday. The following day security services fired on mass funerals being held to mark the deaths of demonstrators who had died only 24 hours earlier.

Twelve people were reportedly shot dead during the processions, including in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Barzeh, where demonstrators had been chanting, "Where are you Assad? We're after your head." Other mourners were killed when security forces opened fire in the village of Ezra, in southern Syria's Deraa province. "It was a massacre," said Haithum Maleh, president of the Damascus-based Human Rights Association of Syria. "People were being shot everywhere."

The Easter weekend bloodbath was followed by a swift crackdown from the security services. One Beirut-based human rights activist said "huge" numbers of people were taken away in night-time raids, with plain-clothed policemen smashing their way into homes and arresting activists.

Haithum Maleh added: "People have disappeared and we don't know where they are. The intelligence services have been going to houses during the night and taking people."

There are no confirmed figures for the numbers of people taken, but a post on one authoritative activist's Facebook page said 68 people were missing from the central city of Homs alone.

A journalist living near Damascus, who asked not to be named, said that protesters who had been shot were often too afraid to seek medical help because of reports that people were being arrested on their hospital beds. "I know there was one person who was shot in a village near Damascus. He was taken to hospital but was followed by the security service."

His story was confirmed by two other human rights activists. Mr Maleh said: "The security services have been taking people from hospitals.

"There was a hospital in Al-Tal, near Damascus where people made a human shield in front of the entrance to stop security forces taking people."

Elsewhere, there were reports that the military had set-up tight cordons around a number of flashpoint cities.

Dr Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, said that army checkpoints were now in place around all Syria's major population centres. "It's like the West Bank," he said. "They are checking mobiles for videos or contacts. Anybody suspicious is detained."

In a further development two Deraa MPs from Syria's parliament resigned on Saturday in protest at the killing of demonstrators. The Syrian regime has blamed "armed gangs" for stoking sectarian violence.