BEIRUT—The crackle of heavy-calibre gunfire erupted at dawn Monday as tanks rolled into the restive Syrian city of Daraa, the flashpoint of the pro-democracy uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
At least seven people were killed in the city amid the first tangible signs of cracks within the armed forces ordered to use military hardware against protesters. Amateur footage posted online appeared to show bodies lying in the streets as protesters came under fire from the tanks’ gunners and snipers on nearby roofs.
One report by activists said that more than 25 people were killed “but no one could get close to them because of the brutal shooting.”
Syrian activists in touch with witnesses in the southern city reported that at least five military officers, including two with the rank of captain, and nine soldiers refused to carry out their orders against protesters. While at least seven local officials in Daraa have already quit their posts to join ranks with the opposition, activists said the military personnel included troops from the cities of Homs, Lattakia and Tartous.
Several military officers in Daraa province said they had orders to open fire on any protester, adding that many were afraid to resist and that failing to carry out orders was tantamount to a death sentence.
“We have orders to open fire,” said one of the officers. “We are afraid to carry them out because there will be more killing. But if we don’t, someone will kill us.”
Neither the casualties nor the reports of defections could be independently confirmed. The authorities cut off phone service, disconnected electrical power and blocked roads to the farming hub of about 1 million people, and foreign journalists have largely been barred from the country. Jordanian state media reported that Syria had sealed the border near Daraa, where the arrest and alleged torture of a group of teenagers accused of writing political graffiti sparked the unrest now gripping the country.
The city was effectively cut off from the outside world before the army began Monday’s raid. Witnesses said numerous checkpoints prevented movement between Daraa and nearby towns and villages. One resident said many people had sent their families into Jordan in recent days, fearing an imminent massacre.
“Dealing with the Israelis at the Rafah crossing is easier than dealing with the Syrian army,” another resident said, referring to an entry into the Gaza Strip.
Activists have accused Assad of resorting to “Hama rules,” the violent strategy by which his father, Hafez Assad, crushed a 1982 rebellion in the western city of Hama by using the full brunt of his security forces to kill thousands of people.
Witnesses told the Al-Jazeera news network that army officers and gunmen loyal to Bashar Assad have engaged in what was described as a bloody and indiscriminate crackdown on demonstrators. Agence France-Presse has reported that a military force of 3,000 men has marched into Daraa. In the absence of international media, activists have taken up the role of war journalists, recording evidence of the army’s offensive and uploading the footage online.
But it remains unclear whether the regime’s hard-nosed strategy will work in the YouTube era, when activists are able to create an international outcry by posting footage of the carnage on the Internet.
In addition, the wall of fear seems to have broken down. In video posted online, protesters in Daraa are seen not only throwing a rock defiantly at an incoming tank but are also milling about near it, almost daring the soldiers to fire on them.
Syria last weekend experienced its bloodiest days since protests began almost a month ago. Human rights activists estimate that more than 300 demonstrators have been killed by the security forces amid calls for international action.
Other reports from activists on the ground indicated that the government’s ratcheting-up of pressure on protesters was not limited to Daraa. Scores of arrests were carried out overnight in the Damascus suburb of Duma. There were reports of gunfire throughout the suburb of Muadamia.
Despite the ongoing crackdown, there were fresh reports of continued unrest around the country. In the northern coastal city of Jebleh, at least 13 people have been killed since Sunday, pro-democracy activists said.