BEIRUT — Syrians held general strikes in cities and towns across the country Thursday, part of a strategy to squeeze the economy as President Bashar Assad tries to crush a four-month-old revolt against his autocratic rule.
Security forces kept up their crackdown, however, and at least five people were killed.
The calls to strike have become a ritual every Thursday, a day before thousands take to the streets following Friday prayers. But activists said this week's response was the most widespread so far, suggesting a new momentum to the uprising.
"All the shops have closed, we have announced a general strike," said an activist in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, speaking to The Associated Press by telephone. He asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution.
Security forces in Deir el-Zour, near the border with Iraq, opened fire from their cars on thousands of protesters demanding Assad's ouster, killing at least two people. Two others were killed in the central city of Homs when security forces backed by tanks raided neighborhoods, activists said.
A Syrian soldier also was killed in Homs, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of sources on the ground. The circumstances of the death were not immediately clear.
The uprising has proved remarkably resilient in a country known for its brutal dictatorship, backed up by pervasive security forces and a loyal military. Although Assad's regime is shaken, it still draws from a significant base of support.
So far, the opposition has yet to bring out the middle and upper middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses. But there will be little to prop up the regime if business comes to a halt, private enterprises go bankrupt and the government cannot pay state employees.
Unlike some Arab countries that have been able to stave off unrest with their oil wealth, Syria has little to fall back on.
Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which help organize the protests, said general strikes could attract Syrians who have been hesitant to join the uprising.
"The aim is to push more people to join the uprising in a way that does not endanger their lives," he said. "The other aim is to pressure the regime economically."
Syria has banned most foreign media and placed tight restrictions on reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently confirm accounts out of Syria.
It was difficult to determine the extent of Thursday's protests, but residents and activists said they were most pronounced in Homs, the Damascus suburb of Douma, Deir el-Zour, as well as towns in northern and southern Syria.
Some security forces attacked shops that took part in the strike in Homs, shooting up windows and setting fires, Idilbi said.
Assad is trying to crush the rebellion with a deadly government crackdown that activists say has killed some 1,600 people since the middle of March.
The government disputes the toll and blames the bloodshed on a foreign conspiracy and "armed gangs." The regime has acknowledged the need for reform, however, and has promised to enact sweeping changes, including constitutional reform.
But protesters say the gestures are empty promises.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA, a mouthpiece for the regime, said masked gunmen tried to cut roads in Deir el-Zour Thursday and forced shop owners to close their stores. It added the gunmen terrorized people and vandalized some shops whose owners refused to close.
The report also said gunmen abducted two police officers and a student in Hama.
SANA's reports often contradict witness accounts.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said the violence is proof that the regime is escalating its crackdown against anyone who dares protest and that the promises of reform were merely "ink on paper."
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram