Beirut, Lebanon – Backed by tanks, helicopters and snipers, the Syrian military seized a landmark mosque that had become a center of protests in the besieged southern town of Dara’a on Saturday, killing at least six people in an escalation of a weeklong crackdown, residents and activists said.
The military’s capture of the Omari Mosque was another sign of its determination to crush dissent in a town that has become a symbol of the six-week uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000.
After deploying reinforcements of four tanks and 20 armored personnel carriers to Dara’a at dawn, the mosque was shelled, then taken by soldiers, who closed it to worshipers, activists and residents said. Snipers took up positions on top of the mosque, and helicopters dropped paratroopers on its grounds, witnesses said.
At least six people were killed at the mosque and elsewhere, they said. Among them was the son of the mosque’s preacher, who was shot when security forces entered his house looking for his father. There was a report that the preacher, Sheik Ahmed Siasna, was arrested later, though that could not be confirmed. He was among a delegation that had met with Mr. Assad three weeks ago to discuss potential reforms in authoritarian Syria.
The military effectively laid siege to Dara’a on Monday, storming the town with tanks and soldiers, and cutting electricity and phone lines. Since then, Dara’a has become a rallying cry for protesters across Syria, though the government has insisted that the unrest there is the work of Salafists, its preferred term for militant Islamists.
“It is a matter of a few hours only, and everything will be finished in Dara’a,” a pro-government politician said from Damascus. “It is impossible for the Syrian regime to let some people announce a Salafi emirate in Dara’a. This is not Afghanistan.”
Heavy gunfire could be heard through the day, Abdallah Abazid, a resident, said. Amid reports of shortages of food, medicine and baby formula, residents remained inside their homes for another day, fearful that they might be killed by snipers if they went outside, he said.
“The security forces are hunting us down,” he said. “We are unarmed and protecting our town with our bare chests, and they are shooting at us.”
The military reinforcements in Dara’a came a day after the United States announced sanctions against three top officials in Mr. Assad’s government, including his brother Maher al-Assad, who is leading the military operations in Dara’a. The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva also adopted a resolution on Friday condemning the violence and authorizing an investigation.
Activists warned of a humanitarian crisis in the town.
“The situation in Dara’a is worse today than it was before,” said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group.
On Friday, 34 people were killed there when thousands of protesters from nearby villages, in a show of solidarity, descended on the town, which is in a largely agricultural region known as the Houran that is knit by extended clan loyalties. Some organizers said the protesters, carrying olive branches and white sheets to signal their peacefulness, were trying to break the siege and deliver food and water. Security forces fired at them anyway, in some of the worst carnage since the uprising began.
Mr. Tarif said that security forces refused to return the bodies of the dead to their families in hopes of stopping funeral processions, which have often turned into demonstrations in themselves. The only bodies given back, he said, were those of children, and their parents were told to bury them early Saturday in the presence of Syrian officials.
The death toll of protests across the country on Friday rose to 73, the highest since a week earlier, when at least 112 people were killed. Organizers said the breadth of protests on Friday was similar to previous weeks, with large demonstrations in the central cities of Homs and Hama, in towns on the Mediterranean like Baniyas and Latakia, and in Kurdish towns in the east. Hundreds of people protested in Damascus; the demonstration was bigger than in past weeks, but still relatively small by the standards set elsewhere in Syria.
Human rights groups say 535 people have been killed since the uprising began.