Hundreds of women have marched along Syria’s main coastal highway to demand the release of men arrested in a mass raid on the town of Baida.
The women gathered on the road leading to Turkey on Wednesday, chanting slogans demanding the release of some 350 men arrested on Tuesday by security forces including secret police.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that security forces barged into houses and arrested men aged up to 60 after townsfolk had earlier participated in unprecedented protests challenging the 11-year rule of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
“The women of Baida are on the highway. They want their men back,” the organisation said.
A human rights lawyer earlier said security forces had arrested 200 residents in Baida, killing two people.
“They brought in a television crew and forced the men they arrested to shout ‘We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar’ while filming them,” the lawyer, who was in contact with residents of the town, told the Reuters news agency.
“Syria is the Arab police state par excellence. But the regime still watches international reaction, and as soon as it senses that it has weakened, it turns more bloody,” said the lawyer, who did not want to be further identified.
Assad has responded to the protests, now in their fourth week, with a blend of force and vague promises of reform.
The Damascus Declaration, Syria’s main rights group, said the death toll from the pro-democracy protests had reached 200.
The authorities have described the protests as part of a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife, blaming unspecified armed groups and “infiltrators” for the violence, and denying a report by Human Rights Watch that security forces have prevented ambulances and medical supplies from reaching besieged areas.
Montaha al-Atrash, board member of the Syrian human rights group Sawasieh, said the authorities “dream up more fantasy armed gang scenarios as soon as another region rises up to demand freedom and democracy”.
“Shame on them. They are doing a disservice to their own president. Why do infiltrators and armed groups disappear when the authorities organise a ‘popular’ pro-Assad demonstrations?” Atrash said.
“As soon as an area like Baida stands up, they attack it and put out the usual film reel of members of the security forces who died defending stability and order,” Atrash said.
Activists said Baida was targeted because its residents participated in a demonstration in Banias last week in which protesters shouted: “The people want the overthrow of the regime” – the rallying cry of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions where the leaders were toppled.
One activist said some residents of Baida had weapons and it appeared that an armed confrontation had erupted.
But Sheikh Anas Airout, an imam in nearby Banias, said Baida residents were largely unarmed and that they were paying the price for their non-violent quest for freedom.
Irregular Assad loyalists, known as “al-shabbiha”, killed four people in Banias on Sunday, a human rights defender in the city said, raising tensions in the mostly Sunni Muslim country ruled by minority Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam.
Banias, home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries, remained sealed off overnight and around 20 tanks were stationed near the northern and southern entrances of the city.
The protests against 48 years of autocratic Baath Party rule erupted in March in the southern city of Daraa near the border with Jordan, and expanded to the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the northeast, the coast and areas in between.
But with heavy secret police presence and Assad maintaining backing from the Sunni merchant class and preachers on the state payroll, major protests have not spread to Damascus proper or to Syria’s second city. Aleppo.