Syrian security agents have arrested dozens of people and increased security after thousands took to the streets across the country in pro-democracy marches, activists said Saturday.
At least seven people were killed Friday as security forces cracked down on demonstrations, bringing the death toll from two weeks of protest to at least 79. Authorities began arresting people, mostly in and around the capital, Damascus, in the hours after the protests broke up and into early Saturday, activists said.
The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the nearly five-decade rule of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, one of the most rigid regimes in the Middle East.
Checkin ID cards
In the city of Douma, near Damascus, security forces were taking strict measures and checking identity cards of people trying to enter or leave, a resident said. At least five people were killed in Douma on Friday.
"Some shops are open but there is tension. Many people are staying home," the resident said on condition his name not be published for fear of government reprisals. "There are a lot of security patrols. I have never seen Douma like that."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern about the violence and called on Syria's government to address the "legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people."
The government blamed Friday's bloodshed on "armed gangs." However, the state-run news agency acknowledged for the first time that Syria was seeing gatherings of people calling for reform.
The strength of the burgeoning protest movement is difficult to gauge because Syria has restricted media access and expelled journalists, making it difficult to determine the extent of the protests and how many people are turning out. Two Associated Press journalists were ordered to leave the country Friday with less than an hour's notice.
President Bashar Assad has made limited gestures of reform in the wake of the protests, but he has offered no specifics.
In his first public appearance Wednesday since the demonstrations began, he blamed a "foreign conspiracy" for the unrest. He then announced he was forming committees to look into civilian deaths and the possibility of replacing Syria's despised emergency laws, which have been in place for decades and allow security forces to arrest people without charge.
His reaction enraged many Syrians who hoped to see more serious concessions after the wave of protests in a country where any rumblings of dissent are crushed.
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