Security forces killed eight people in a huge sweep Wednesday against anti-regime protesters in Syria, activists said on the eve of demonstrations marking six months since the uprising erupted.
Undaunted by a deadly crackdown on demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad, protesters have vowed to hit the streets en masse Thursday to mark March 15, when people first took to the streets demanding reforms.
"Six months. More than ever determined to (continue) the March 15 uprising," activists wrote on Facebook page The Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the main engines of the popular uprising.
On Wednesday, soldiers and security forces stormed villages and large swathes of northwestern countryside, where anti-regime activists were suspected to be hiding, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Armed with heavy machine guns, the forces cut off roads leading to Jabal al-Zawiya, Baliun, Marayan, Ihsem, Al-Rami and Ablin, setting up checkpoints and arresting several people, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Four people were killed and dozens more wounded in the operation, it said, adding that 100 people were arrested including the family of Riad al-Assad, a soldier who defected.
Ablin is the hometown of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmush, the first military officer to publicly declare his desertion in early June in protest against the repression of the protest movement.
He managed to leave Syria and is currently leading the "Brigade of Free Officers," a group of dozens of officers who have deserted the regime.
Elsewhere, a child was killed when security forces opened fire to disperse a demonstration late on Wednesday in the village of Janudiya near the town of Jisr al-Shughur, close to Turkey, said the Observatory.
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Several other Syrian cities witnessed arrests Wednesday, with 15 people taken into custody in Zabadani, a day after at least 34 others were detained, activists told AFP.
They said Syrian forces were also dispatched early Wednesday to the town of Zabadani, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Damascus, a scene of massive anti-regime demonstrations on Tuesday.
In the central region of Homs, the body of a young man arrested on Saturday was handed over to his parents on Wednesday, while another resident was shot dead in Bab al-Sebaa neighbourhood, the Observatory said.
Elsewhere, in the central region of Hama, two people were killed when soldiers and security forces opened fire on them in the villages of Howeja and Bana, it added.
Armed forces also entered Houla where a pro-regime militiaman was murdered at dawn by three unidentified men.
Assad's forces were also accused of a "merciless" attack on a Red Crescent ambulance in Homs on September 7, in a statement issued Wednesday by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
State news agency SANA reported a bus driver was ambushed in the central city of Hama by an "armed terrorist group," while five soldiers and a guard who were shot dead by "armed terrorist groups" were buried in Aleppo and Homs.
Damascus has consistently maintained the protests are the work of "armed gangs," rejecting reports by Western embassies and human rights groups that the great majority of those killed were unarmed civilians.
The United Nations estimates the Syrian government crackdown on protests killed 2,600, mostly civilians, since March.
Global and regional pressure has intensified on Syria in recent days, with the European Union planning to strengthen sanctions against Damascus, a move that could prohibit investments in its oil sector.
Russia meanwhile warned on Wednesday that "terrorist organisations" could rise to power in Syria should Assad's regime fall under pressure from the ongoing street protests.
State television has announced national dialogue sessions will be held as of Sunday in all provinces "to develop a programme aimed at preserving national sovereignty and respect for the freedom of citizens and the rule of law."