Beirut: Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed at least three towns early Monday and snipers fired from rooftops, killing at least five people as the crackdown intensifies on a five-week uprising against President Bashar Assad`s authoritarian regime, witnesses and activists said.
The most serious violence appeared to be in the southern city of Daraa, where the protest movement kicked off more than a month ago after authorities arrested a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Since then, more than 300 people have been killed across the country as the anti-government demonstrations have swelled.
"We need international intervention! We need countries to help us!" shouted a witness in Daraa who said he saw five corpses after security forces opened fire on a car. He spoke to The Associated Press by telephone.
Activists on social media posted footage of what they said were troops firing throughout Daraa.
The crackle of heavy gunfire punctuates the footage, as well as the labored, frightened breathing of the activist filming the footage. The activist repeats the date and location and says: "The army forces are entering Daraa. They are shelling the city of Daraa."
The video could not be independently verified and all witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it nearly impossible to get independent assessments of the situation on the ground.
Also Monday, witnesses said Syrian security forces had opened fire in the suburbs of Damascus and in the coastal town of Jableh, where witnesses said police and army units fired from rooftops over the weekend even though there were no apparent threats and no protests in progress.
On Monday, witnesses said security forces in camouflage uniforms — some with their faces covered — and masked gunmen dressed in black were roaming the streets.
"Jableh is surrounded by security forces," the witness said, speaking by telephone. "The dead are in the mosques and the houses. We can`t get them out."
The rising level of violence in Syria — more than 120 people have been killed since Friday — has brought calls from the watchdog group Human Rights Watch for a U.N. inquiry.
Since Saturday, Syrian security forces have detained dozens of opposition activists as authorities turned to pinpoint raids to quell the revolt.
The strategy, described by a rights activist, appeared aimed at rattling the opposition`s leadership and showing that the state`s ability to conduct sweeping arrests has not changed despite abolishing nearly 50-year-old emergency laws last week.
The raids were concentrated around the capital Damascus and the central city of Homs, a hotbed of demonstrations against Assad`s authoritarian rule, said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
"These people are not being arrested in a legal way. They are being kidnapped," Qurabi said, claiming the plainclothes security agents did not have formal arrest warrants.
Qurabi did not have full figures for those detained, but said at least 20 people were arrested in Homs.
A resident in the Damascus suburb of Douma said at least five people were taken into custody and authorities cut Internet and telephone lines.
Assad has blamed most of the unrest on a "foreign conspiracy" and armed thugs trying to sow sectarian strife. The state-run news agency SANA said 286 police officers have been wounded since the uprising began. It did not give further details.
But possible cracks could be emerging from within.
Two members stepped down from the provincial council in the southern region of Daraa, which has the highest death toll in the country. The resignations came a day after two lawmakers and a religious leader from Daraa also turned their backs on Assad in disgust over the killings.
Such internal rifts have added resonance since nearly all opposition figures have been either jailed or exiled during the 40-year dynasty of the Assad family.