Image: Demonstrations near the United Nations building in New York support anti-government protesters in Syria
John Makely  /  msnbc.com
About 25 demonstrators chant slogans Tuesday across the street from the United Nations building in New York in support of the anti-government protesters in Syria.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/26/2011 7:17:47 PM ET 2011-04-26T23:17:47

Syrian forces heaped more punishment Tuesday on residents of restive towns, detaining hundreds in raids or at checkpoints, firing on people trying to retrieve the bodies of anti-government protesters, cutting electricity and even shooting holes in rooftop water tanks in a region parched by drought, witnesses said.

The extended violence came as the United States and the European Union opened discussions of potential sanctions and human rights groups tried to keep Syria off of a UN rights panel.

In the southern city of Daraa, where Syrian army tanks and snipers killed at least 34 people in two days, a resident said security forces shot and killed a man as he walked out of the main Omari mosque and shouted at them though a bullhorn: "Enough! Enough! Enough! Stop killing your brothers!"

The crackdown by President Bashar Assad has intensified since Friday, when more than 100 people were killed. Security forces also conducted raids in the Damascus suburb of Douma and the northern coastal town of Jableh.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 400 people have been killed since mid-March as the Assad regime has tried to crush the uprising. But instead of intimidating protesters, it has emboldened them, and their calls for modest reforms have them now increasingly demanding Assad's ouster.

"When the army was sweeping through parts of Daraa, the people were demonstrating in other parts," said the activist, Rami Nakhla, who is based in Beirut. "All they are doing is increasing the people's determination."

Syrian residents contacted by The Associated Press on Tuesday reported hundreds of people detained in the towns of Daraa, Jableh and outlying neighborhoods of Damascus — either seized at checkpoints or in dawn raids. Detainees included all male relatives of the same family, a resident said.

"There's been a huge campaign of arresting people," Nakhla said.

Daraa residents braved fire from snipers and other troops to pull bullet-riddled bodies of protesters killed Monday off the streets and hide them from security forces, witnesses said.

One man, Zaher Ahmad Ayyash, was killed as he tried to retrieve the bodies of two brothers, Taysir and Yaser al-Akrad, said a resident, who asked to be identified only as Abdullah for fear of reprisal.

Those who managed to retrieve the corpses then hid them away, Abdullah said, suggesting that residents might face reprisal if troops discovered they had taken the bodies. As he spoke on the phone, gunfire popped in the background in Daraa, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border.

"We can't bury the dead in the cemetery because it's occupied by Syrian soldiers," said Abdullah. "We are waiting to find another place to bury them."

Snipers also targeted Daraa residents' supply of water, shooting holes in rooftop tanks — the last source of clean water for many desperate residents of the parched region of 300,000 people, Abdullah said.

Troops cut off electricity to Daraa on Friday, and most food has spoiled in refrigerators.

Syrian rights organization Sawasiah, founded by jailed human rights lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said supplies of baby milk and blood at hospitals are starting to run low.

Sanction eyed
The United State and other nations are considering sanctions against Assad.

"We have called on and continue to call on Assad to change course now and to heed the calls of his own people," Jake Sullivan, State Department director of policy planning, said Tuesday, NBC News reported. The administration thinks that Assad has taken actions "completely inconsistent with the actions of a responsible leader and that are totally unacceptable."

He stopped short of saying Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader and that the future of Syria should be in the hands of the Syrian people.

The U.S. is exploring a wide range of policy options, including "targeted" sanctions, Sullivan said, refusing to go into detail.

"The purpose of that would be to send a clear message to the targets of the sanctions" and to "make them understand that there are costs, specific costs, related to this action," Sullivan said.

U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford met with senior Syrian officials in the last few days, but Sullivan would not provide any details of the discussions.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., also said Tuesday that targeted sanctions are a possibility, NBC News reported.

She reiterated that Assad is seeking help from Iran.

"President Assad is disingenuously blaming outsiders while at the same time seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syrian citizens, the same brutal tactics that have been used by the Iranian regime," Rice said.

The European Union also is discussing possible sanctions, an EU diplomat said on Tuesday.

These would be discussed further at a meeting of ambassadors from EU member states in Brussels on Friday, the diplomat said.

"We are exploring possibilities of further action. The next step will be taken at a meeting on Friday," the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

Any sanctions are likely to begin with asset freezes and travel bans targeting the Syrian leadership, a separate EU source said. It could be up to two weeks before the measures formally pass into law.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said earlier that London would work with other countries to push for sanctions on Syria's leadership if the government continued to use violence to quell protests.

"Syria is now at a fork in the road .... it can choose ever more violent repression which can only ever bring short term security for the authorities there," Hague told Britain's parliament.

"If it does so, we will work with our European partners and others to take measures including sanctions that will have an impact on the regime," he added.

Opposition at the United Nations
Human rights groups and a growing number of governments are working to prevent Syria from being elected to the U.N.'s top human rights body.

Syria is a frontrunner for a seat on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council as one of only four candidates selected to fill four Asian seats and it is likely to win unless another candidate enters the race.

However, regardless of the number of candidates, it would still need to win a majority of votes in the May 20 secret ballot election in the 192-member General Assembly to be elected to the council.

Since the 53-member Asian Group endorsed its slate — which also includes India, Indonesia and the Philippines — for the council in January, rights groups and some governments have engaged in a behind-the-scenes effort to keep Syria off the council.

Those efforts have gathered steam amid the crackdown on pro-democracy protests that began mid-March.

On Tuesday, Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah called for the U.N. Security Council to start proceedings against Syrian officials in the International Criminal Court and "rein in the security apparatus." It said at least 400 civilians had been killed to date.

"This savage behavior, which is aimed at keeping the ruling clique in power at the expense of a rising number of civilian lives, calls for immediate international action beyond condemnations," Sawasiah said in a statement sent to Reuters.

"The murderers in the Syrian regime must be held accountable. The rivers of blood spilt by this oppressive regime for the past four decades are enough," the statement said.

A diplomat involved in the process of filling the four Asian seats on the Human Rights Council said he was confident that another country would be found to contest the election but declined to say which countries were being pursued. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because the consultations are private.

Repeated attempts to reach Syria's U.N. ambassador for comment were unsuccessful.

Since 2006, rights groups and governments have successfully opposed the election of several countries including Iran, Venezuela, Belarus and Sri Lanka.

UN condemnation possible
The campaign against Syria's nomination on the human rights council also comes as France, Britain, Germany and Portugal are urging the U.N. Security Council to strongly condemn the violence against peaceful demonstrators in Syria.

The United States is supporting the statement of condemnation, a diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Last Tuesday, the U.S., which normally doesn't disclose its secret ballot votes, openly opposed Syria's candidacy on the human rights body.

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"I think in this particular case we feel compelled to comment, given Syria's actions against its own people," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington. "We believe it would be inappropriate and hypocritical for Syria to join the Human Rights Council."

Late Monday, the State Department told American citizens to leave Syria as soon as they could and urged anyone planning to go there to postpone their plans.

Nonessential U.S. embassy staff and the families of all embassy personnel were also ordered to leave Syria. It said the embassy would remain open for limited services.

The warning said that Syrian government restrictions, including the short-term detention of foreign diplomats, made it difficult for the embassy to assess the security situation.

It added that attempts by authorities to blame the unrest on outsiders could contribute to anti-foreigner sentiment.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: In Syria, no easy way out

  1. Closed captioning of: In Syria, no easy way out

    >>> now we turn to news from overseas, to the rapidly deteriorating crisis in syria , with the bloody government crackdown on protesters escalating there. the u.s. state department is telling american citizens now to leave the country. others are wondering how long the u.s. can stay out of the fray. our chief foreign affairs correspondent, andrea mitchell , reports tonight on what may be another no-win situation for america.

    >> reporter: human rights groups say hundreds of protesters have been killed in the last few days. some gunned down in the streets. and today more than 2,000 security police reportedly fanned out across a damascus suburb. but this is what syrian government tv showed tonight. a funeral, it claimed, of 15 soldiers killed by demonstrators. in daraa the situation is desperate, says al jazeera 's rula amin, one of the few reporters in syria .

    >> anyone who dares to get onto the streets is risking to be shot because the army is shooting at anyone who's on the street. people are scared. they are panicking. they want to try to flee town but there's no way out.

    >> reporter: in addition to those killed, hundreds more have gone missing, taken from their homes.

    >> just in the last couple of days security forces have been going from house to house, arresting people and taking them into detention.

    >> reporter: the ruthless crackdown and reports of iranian involvement put more pressure on the white house and the rest of the world to do something.

    >> we're pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions to respond to the crackdown and make clear that this behavior by the syrian government is unacceptable.

    >> reporter: president obama met today with the crown prince of the united arab emirates . as the arab league issued a statement without mentioning syria specifically, saying the protesters deserve support, not bullets. mr. obama also talked yesterday to turkey's prime minister erdogan, who today urged syria 's president assad to move toward democracy.

    >> we could end up seeing in one of the syrian or more of the syrian cities the massacre that we feared would happen in benghazi, libya.

    >> reporter: but unlike libya, so far the arab league , the u.s., and even israel prefer assad, the devil they know, to whatever might replace him in a country with no organized opposition, just a courageous but unpredictable protest movement. brian?

    >> andrea mitchell in our d.c. newsroom tonight. andrea, thanks. and

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