BEIRUT — Thousands of defiant Syrians chanting, “We are not afraid!” were met by security forces firing bullets and tear gas Friday in a crackdown on nationwide protests that left 42 people dead — many of them villagers trying to break an army blockade of the city where the six-week uprising began.
President Bashar Assad again unleashed deadly force in a determined effort to crush the revolt, the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty.
Although still in control, he will struggle to recover legitimacy at home and abroad if he manages to stay in power. The United States slapped three top officials in his regime — including his brother — with sanctions and nations agreed to launch a U.N.-led investigation of Syria’s crackdown.
Human rights groups say 500 people have been killed since the uprising began.
Many of the 42 people killed Friday were in Daraa, said human rights activist Mustafa Osso, whose Syria-based group compiles casualty lists from the crackdown.
Thousands of people from Daraa’s outskirts tried to break the military siege on the town, but security forces opened fire, human rights groups said.
A witness in Daraa said residents stayed indoors because the city has been under siege by the military since Monday, when thousands of soldiers backed by tanks and snipers stormed in. People were too afraid even to venture out to mosques for prayers, the witness said.
A devastating picture was emerging of Daraa — which has been without electricity, water, and telephones since Monday — as residents fled to neighboring countries. The uprising began in Daraa in mid-March, sparked by the arrest of teens who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian, anti-Western regimes in the Arab world.
Large demonstrations were reportedin the capital of Damascus, the central city of Homs, the coastal cities of Banias and Latakia, the northern cities of Raqqa and Hama, and Qamishli near the Turkish border.
Nations approved a U.N.-led inquiry of the crackdown, demanding that Syria’s government stop the violence, release political prisoners, and lift restrictions on the media and access to the Internet.
In a 26-9 vote, the U.N.’s top human rights body said it “unequivocally condemns the use of lethal violence against peaceful protesters by the Syrian authorities and the hindrance to access of medical treatment.”