SUSPECTED dissidents were seized from their homes in Syria yesterday as the country's Ba'athist regime deployed its secret police in an operation to spread fear among opposition sympathisers.
There were reports of pre-dawn raids across the country, highlighting the risks faced by those who dared to challenge Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president of 11 years, even when they were not braving live fire on the streets.
After days of using his aides to signal his willingness to make concessions, Mr Assad changed tack abruptly on Wednesday in a defiant television address in which he denounced protesters as conspirators in the pay of foreign powers. The uncompromising strategy appeared to yield dividends, with fewer taking to the streets on Friday than opposition activists had hoped.
But tens of thousands were still willing to join demonstrations across Syria.
Once again, as has happened so often in over a fortnight of unrest, they were met with violence and live fire by police and military units as well as unidentified loyalists in plain clothes who took up sniper positions on rooftops and balconies. In a country that has effectively sealed itself off to the outside world, it is nearly impossible to establish an accurate death toll.
But opposition activists told of as many as 27 deaths in four different towns and cities.
Testimony emerging from Douma, on the northern outskirts of the capital Damascus, gave a rare insight into the tactics of the police. A Syrian activist who went to the town said he saw 11 bodies, all victims of pro-Assad forces.
"Thugs, supported by the security forces [started] screaming 'We sacrifice our souls, our blood for the sake of Bashar,'" the activist said.
"They attacked the peaceful demonstrators with electrified anti-riot tools, sticks, knives and live ammunition.''
In the city of Homs, where two people were killed on Friday, at least 21 opposition sympathisers were taken from their homes.
There were reports of mass arrests, too, in the southern city of Deraa, where scores have been killed in some of the worst violence of the protests.
"The regime is trying to reimpose the fear barrier," one activist said. "The greatest threat to Assad is if people are no longer scared of him."
Western officials including Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, say they believe that the reform-minded president's hands are tied by regime hardliners.
But former senior Syrian officials and even members of Mr Assad's family have told reporters that this perception is a fallacy deliberately fostered by the regime and that, in fact, the president is one of the main enemies of change.