Syria has dramatically escalated its crackdown on protesters with a wave of arrests in Damascus and raids in other flashpoint cities.
Security forces in the capital raided homes and shops on Wednesday and arrested dozens of activists in Rukn Eddin district, known to be a predominantly Kurdish area, where electricity was cut off.
Scores of others were arrested on the outskirts of the capital, activists said. By late Wednesday, a Syrian human rights group said ten protesters were killed and dozens injured in Homs. According to activists, security forces opened fire on Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, and Homs.
Tunisia on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Syria because of “dangerous” developments.
Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shemayleh, reporting from Ramtha, on the Syria-Jordan border, said large protests gathered in two Palestinian refugee camps to decry the shelling of al-Ramel refugee camp in Latakia by government gunships.
Syrian state media claimed earlier on Wednesday that security forces had withdrawn from the city of Deir ez-Zor and areas of Latakia, but witnesses have rejected the reports.
Convoys of army vehicles were seen leaving Deir ez-Zor after the military cleared the area of “armed terrorist gangs”, the state-run news agency SANA reported. Footage showed pictures of crowds chanting and cheering as the soldiers left.
But on Wednesday, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said Syrian troops were still in the city.
“We stress the necessity that the army withdraws and ends the military campaign. I can confirm that Deir ez-Zor is still witnessing problems and the army is in Deir ez-Zor and other towns,” he said, speaking at a news conference in Istanbul with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh.
Witnesses on the ground also disputed the government’s announcements.
Activists also told Al Jazeera that gunfire was heard near the city’s Freedom Square after Ramadan prayers on Tuesday night, where two people were reported to be killed.
Residents said tanks were still present at the outskirts of Deir ez-Zor and that troops raided houses looking for dissidents. Activists said at least 32 people have died since troops seized control of the city last Wednesday.
Assad, however, issued a hardline message, telling ruling Baath Party officials: “Reform in Syria springs from conviction… and not in response to any outside pressures.
The state news agency quoted him as saying Syria was being targeted “to weaken its role in the resistance (to Israel) and in defending legitimate Arab rights”.
‘End’ of operation
Meanwhile, Syria’s interior ministry said security forces had completed their operation in the al-Ramel al-Janoubi neighbourhood of the coastal city of Latakia, which had been subjected to a four-day assault that activists said has left at least 36 people dead.
SANA reported reported Brigadier General Mohammad Hassan al-Ali as saying the al-Ramel camp, which houses a large population of Palestinian refugees, “is recovering and the citizens are practising their normal life that was spoiled by the acts of the terrorist groups”.
But Al Jazeera’s Shamayleh reported conflicting accounts.
“Activists told us that on Tuesday night and early on Wednesday morning, specifically at 8am local time on Wednesday, heavy gunfire was heard across neighbourhoods in Latakia and that two Palestinians were killed on Tuesday night,” said Shamayleh.
Syrian troops ‘withdraw’ from eastern city
The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) told the AFP news service that more than 700 security troops took part in the operation in the southern district of Ramel, arresting people on lists.
“Heavy gunfire continued in most opposition neighbourhoods,” the group said.
In Jabal al-Zawya, a village in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, security forces shot dead a man standing on his balcony, the SOHR told AFP.
With tension rising, the UN said it has temporarily withdrawn about two dozen “nonessential” international staff from Syria because of security concerns.
UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq also said some family members of UN staff have been relocated to other countries.
On Wednesday, Switzerland widened sanctions against the Syrian government, adding 12 more individuals to a list of officials under financial embargo and travel restriction, the AFP reported.
Western diplomats said the UN’s top human rights body is likely to hold an urgent meeting next week to discuss the escalating crackdown in Syria, according to the Associated Press.
Syria’s key regional ally Iran warned on Tuesday that any Western intervention in the “internal affairs” of Damascus would stoke “public hatred” in the region.
The crackdown in Syria has escalated since the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan, when nightly prayers became the occasion for more protests against President Bashar al-Assad and 41 years of Baathist rule.