Syria protesters vow to stay firm on 'revolution'
Anti-regime protesters pledged to press ahead with their "revolution" on Wednesday despite sweeping arrests by Syrian 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 activists said more than 1,000 people had been arrested across the country 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 demonstrating.
"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," it said in a statement obtained by AFP.
"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, ... the Syrian government has, in recent days, intensified their effort to arrest citizens," it 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 listed as arrested or missing.
Assad's government has persistently blamed the violence on "armed criminal gangs" and portrayed the protest movement as a conspiracy.
As a wave of arrests intensified, an online post by the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group 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," it said.
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 that France was going to "push for the adoption of the harshest possible sanctions," while his Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris wanted to have Assad named in EU sanctions.
France issued a advisory against travel to Syria for its citizens.
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.
To address the economic fallout from the protests, Damascus on Wednesday launched a string of measures to curb the flight of foreign currency by authorising savings in dollars and euros for the first time.
The International Monetary Fund has revised Syria's growth rate downward, its local currency has slumped about 10 percent in the black market and the Damascus Stock Exchange plunged 20 percent in the past six weeks.
© 2011 AFP