Syria protesters vow to stay firm on 'revolution'
Syrian protesters pledged on Wednesday to press ahead with their "revolution" in the face of sweeping arrests by authorities, as France called for sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad.
The vow came as around 150 students held a brief sit-in at the university in the besieged southern flashpoint town of Daraa, as more than 1,000 people have been were arrested so far this week.
"We must continue our peaceful revolution throughout Syria until we achieve the freedom we demand," said the committee coordinating the anti-government protests in a string of cities.
They include Daraa, the epicentre of protests, Banias on the Mediterranean coast and the central industrial city of Homs.
The opposition said the "live ammunition fired into the crowds has not stopped the young people from continuing to demonstrate.
"The crowds are only growing in size and momentum. The government's fierce campaign of arbitrary mass arrests will not succeed where their bullets have failed," a statement said.
"Having failed to stop the protests and demonstrations in Syria through their various means of oppression, besieging cities, censoring and cutting off communications, and even firing live ammunition, which has killed hundreds of Syrians, the Syrian government has, in recent days, intensified their effort to arrest citizens," the statement obtained by AFP said.
At least 500 people are being arrested every day on average, it added.
The civilian death toll from the unprecedented demonstrations in Syria has already topped 607 since March 15, according to Syria's Insan human rights group, which said as many as 8,000 people were now being listed as arrested or missing.
Assad's government has persistently blamed the violence on "armed criminal gangs" and has portrayed the protest movement as a conspiracy.
As a wave of arrests intensified, a Facebook post by the Syrian Revolution 2011 website had urged "Syrians in all regions to gather from Tuesday evening in all public places to organise sit-ins" round the clock.
On Wednesday around 150 students shouting "With our soul and blood we defend Daraa; lift the siege in Daraa" held a sit-in at the town's university, which was quickly broken up by security forces, an activist said.
Amnesty International said a "wave of arrests of anti-government protesters intensified over the weekend."
"The use of unwarranted lethal force, arbitrary detention and torture appear to be the desperate actions of a government that is intolerant of dissent and must be halted immediately," said Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director Philip Luther.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner has denounced measures used by Syria to put down seven weeks of anti-regime protests as "barbaric" and amounting "to the collective punishment of innocent civilians."
He spoke specifically about Daraa, which has been sealed off by the army since April 25 when up to 5,000 troops backed by tanks rolled into the town.
Daraa was reported to have water and electricity again on Tuesday, except for the Al-Omari mosque area, which was the scene of clashes.
The army has said it entered Daraa last week at the request of residents to rid them of "terrorist gangs" responsible for a spate of "killings and vandalism."
Assad, quoted in Al-Watan newspaper, said the Daraa operation "could have happened in any country in the world" and that soldiers would complete the mission "very soon."
President Nicolas Sarkozy told L'Express magazine: "For Syria we are going to push for the adoption of the harshest possible sanctions." Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said "France wishes" to specifically name Assad in EU sanctions.
But diplomats told AFP that while there was general agreement on slapping an arms embargo on Syria, there were divisions concerning targeted measures against Syrian officials.
Last week, Washington froze the assets of top officials, including Assad's brother, Maher, who commands the feared Fourth Armoured Division.
France issued a advisory against travel to Syria for its citizens.
The international Red Cross urged Syria to lift restrictions on access to casualties in Daraa, while the International Crisis Group think-tank warned that Syria was "quickly going beyond the point of no return."
© 2011 AFP