DAMASCUS // At least eight civilians were killed by security forces in protests yesterday, human-rights groups said, with opposition activists claiming more than a million people taking part in demonstrations nationwide.
Hama in central Syria and Deir Ezzor in the eastern Arab tribal heartlands saw the largest rallies for the second week in a row, according to campaigners, with more than 500,000 claimed to be participating in each. Syrian state-run media, which have started to acknowledge protests, said no more than 2,000 were involved in Deir Ezzor.
Many of the killings, blamed on security services by activists, took place in Homs - where sectarian violence flared during the week - as well as Idleb and the Damascus suburb of Mleeha.
Human-rights monitors also reported sweeping arrests and bloodshed in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city, which has been comparatively insulated from a widespread citizens' uprising.
Two activists were stabbed to death by pro-regime gangs in the street outside an Aleppo mosque, rights campaigners said.
Damascus, the centre of bloodshed for the first time last week, was relatively quiet, with a massive security clampdown. Checkpoints were set up on roads into the city centre and restive working-class areas, including Hajar Aswad, Ruken el Deen, Midan, Qadam and Qaboun, were sealed off by army and plainclothes security units.
Communications in the capital were also heavily disrupted, with land telephone lines, mobile networks and internet connections shut down in some areas. Public transport was also halted, with buses commandeered by security agencies to ferry manpower to trouble spots.
Despite those measures, and the now usual presence of security officers armed with clubs and rifles waiting to confront opposition activists at the start of marches, thousands joined protests in some Damascus neighbourhoods. Most areas of the capital remained quiet, however, with a majority of city residents staying at home behind locked doors from midmorning to early evening, preferring to watch developments on television rather than take part.
Now in its fifth month, the uprising shows no sign of coming to a close and there is little indication of how or when it will be resolved.
"Neither side is willing to talk to the other side and with every extra death it gets harder to find a solution," said a Damascus resident, on condition of anonymity. "This is just going to go on and on."
Protesters in Homs similarly defied a powerful security presence, including armoured military units, to continue their now regular demonstrations. Violence involving members of the Sunni majority and Alawite minority in Homs this week has driven fears that the situation might yet escalate into a sectarian war.
Activists have been at pains to highlight the non-sectarian nature of the uprising and accuse the authorities, which are dominated by Alawites, of playing on minority groups' fears in order to cling to power. Pro-regime militia groups have also been accused of trying to start an internecine conflict in order to derail the popular uprising.
"It is true that Alawites were brutally murdered in Homs this week, but no one actually knows who did it," said one civil-rights monitor in Damascus. "It could have been gangs linked to protesters or it could have been pro-regime gangs. Anything is possible now in Syria, except reliably finding out the truth."
More than 1,400 civilians have been killed by security forces since the uprising began in mid-March, according to human-rights groups, with many hundreds wounded and more than 10,000 suspected activists arrested.
Such deadly security measures, in conjunction with promises of political reform and the opening of government-orchestrated national dialogue talks, have done nothing to quell demonstrations. While protesters once called for piecemeal political liberalisation, they are now demanding nothing short of dismantling the decades-old autocratic system of government and toppling the regime.
Protesters have failed to reach the critical mass needed to obtain that goal however, and the president, Bashar Al Assad, in his second decade as leader, retains significant public support and command over ultra-loyalist security units.