BEIRUT — A rare demonstration by hundreds of Syrian university students turned violent Monday when security forces beat up and arrested several protesters who were shouting for freedom and unity as the country’s three-week uprising gathered strength despite a government crackdown, witnesses said.
Video footage posted online showed what appears to be plainclothes security forces beating protesters and forcefully pulling others away as they marched inside the campus of Damascus University. An activist in touch with students who witnessed the demonstration corroborated the footage, but he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“The Syrian people are one!” the students shouted in the video.
Protests erupted in Syria more than three weeks ago and have been growing steadily, with tens of thousands of people calling for sweeping reforms to President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian regime.
More than 170 people have been killed, according to human rights groups.
International and Arab reaction to the violence in Syria had been relatively subdued, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested America would not be getting involved.
She said late last month that Assad is a a “different leader” than Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and that many members of Congress who have visited the country “believe he’s a reformer.”
But with the mounting casualties, others in the international community have begun voicing criticism.
France on Monday strongly condemned the violence in Syria, calling it “unacceptable,” and called for immediate reforms.
“Reform and repression are incompatible,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
German spokesman, Steffen Seibert, called the continuing use of force against peaceful demonstrators “dismaying and outrageous.”
While at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a telephone conversation with Assad, said he was “greatly disturbed” by the reports of violence and said the killing of peaceful demonstrators was unacceptable and should be investigated.
Most of the demonstrations in Syria so far have happened outside the capital. The fact that students were gathering in Damascus on Monday suggested that the protesters were becoming emboldened as their unprecedented movement enters its fourth week.
The activist said most of the students taking part in Monday’s protest were from Daraa — the southern city that has become the epicenter of the violence — and the port city of Banias, where four protesters were killed Sunday.
Some 2,000 mourners chanting “Death is better than humiliation!” turned out in Banias on Monday for a funeral for the four after Muslim noon prayers, an eyewitness said.
The military rolled into the city early Monday, taking up positions around key buildings and intersections. But the army pulled out after several hours and kept up their positions on the outskirts. The witness, speaking on the phone from Banias, said schools and shops were closed because people feared more clashes.
He said the army’s arrival was met mostly with relief.
“We are happy it’s the army and not security forces who are like regime-hired gangs,” he told The Associated Press. Like most eyewitnesses who spoke to the AP, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from the government.
In Banias, no soldiers were present at the funeral. Participants dispersed peacefully.
“The troops just came into the city to say they are with the people, not against them,” the resident said.
In Daraa, a resident contacted by telephone said Syrian employees evacuated a government compound in the city. He said road blocks were erected and at least one tank stood at the city’s northern entrance on Monday. Overnight, Syrian forces set up dirt mounds on main city roads and on Daraa’s exit roads.
The move to evacuate the government compound raised fears among residents that a military operation was being planned.
The government blames the violence on armed gangs rather than reform-seekers and has vowed to crush further unrest. On Sunday, state television reported that thugs killed nine soldiers in an ambush near Banias, which is 185 miles (300 kilometers) northwest of the capital, Damascus.
The report said gunmen hiding among trees along a road shot at the soldiers, and it broadcast images later of ambulance and other civilian vehicles coming under fire along the same road.
The accounts could not be independently confirmed. The government has placed severe restrictions on news coverage and many journalists — including from The Associated Press — have been ordered to leave the country.
Assad has made a series of overtures to try and appease the growing outrage, including sacking local officials and granting Syrian nationality to thousands of Kurds, a long-ostracized minority. But the gestures have failed to satisfy protesters who are demanding political freedoms and an end to the decades-old despised emergency laws.
On Sunday, Assad ordered the release of 191 detainees who were arrested in the past few weeks during protests in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where 12 people were shot dead during last Friday.