BEIRUT — Syrian security forces fired on protesters in the central province of Homs on Saturday, killing two people and wounding at least eight, as President Bashar Assad pushed ahead with a brutal crackdown despite assurances to the U.N. chief this week that the military operations have ended.
Assad has come under mounting criticism for the offensive again the five-month-old uprising, most recently from the United States and its European allies who on Thursday demanded the Syrian leader step down.
A state-owned Syrian newspaper, considered a government mouthpiece, rejected those calls Saturday, saying they revealed the "face of the conspiracy" against Damascus.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces on Saturday shot dead two people in the town of Rastan, near the provincial capital of Homs, including well-known activists Mahmoud Ayoub who organized anti-regime protests.
The group said the troops also wounded at least eight people Saturday in Homs, where a general strike was under way to protests the crackdown and most of the city's markets were closed.
The government dispatched reinforcements Saturday to Homs, Syria's third-largest city and the site of intense anti-regime protests, according to the Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Observatory. "Shooting has not stopped since last night," Abdul-Rahman said.
The latest casualties, along with 29 people who activists said were shot dead Friday in different locations across the country, suggest Assad is either unwilling to stop the violence – or not fully in control of his own regime.
Apart from Homs, the military offensive has also focused on the coastal city of Latakia, the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, and the central flashpoint city of Hama.
Activists reported a wave of arrests in parts of Latakia on Saturday, adding that authorities were cleaning up the al-Ramel neighborhood after a four-day military operation earlier this week. A U.N. team is expected to arrive in Damascus later on Saturday and visit Latakia on Sunday.
A Western diplomat confirmed that al-Ramel area, which is home to thousands of Palestinian refugees, was being subjected to "a serious clean up operation" in advance of the arrival of the U.N. humanitarian mission led by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.
The Local Coordination Committees, a Syrian activist group, said a 72-year-old man died in Latakia on Saturday after being wounded during a raid on the city days before.
In an amateur video posted online and said to have been taken in Hama, Syrian soldiers kick and slap four male detainees sitting handcuffed next to a desert road.
One of the men could be heard telling the officers beating him "if you have a picture of me or if anyone says I took part in a demonstration then slaughter me. Cut me to pieces."
The soldiers then kick the men in the face and on their heads as they beg for mercy.
The Associated Press could not verify the video. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground.
On Saturday, the government issued its first official response to the U.S. and European demands for Assad to step down. There has been no official comments in Syria following Assad's declaration to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday that military and security operations have stopped.
The daily Al-Thawra newspaper, which speaks for the Syrian regime, rejected the Obama administration's calls and any kind of foreign intervention in Syria's internal affairs, saying Damascus "will never permit anyone to do that."
It also accused the West of trying to sideline Damascus from the Israeli-Palestinians conflict, which it said is a strategic aim for Israel, Washington and Europe.
Syria is a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict and is in a state of war with the Jewish state. Syria is also Iran's strongest ally in the Arab world and supports Islamic militant groups like Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A high-level U.N. team recommended Thursday that the violence in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court over possible crimes against humanity.
On Friday, the U.N. released the full text of its report on the crackdown.
It said Syrian government forces may have committed crimes against humanity by conducting summary executions, torturing prisoners and targeting children. The release includes rebuttals from the Syrian Foreign Ministry, offering a rare firsthand look into the regime's justifications for the crackdown.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue