Syrian security forces have broken up a late-night rally by thousands of students in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, that witnesses and activists said was the biggest student protest so far.
Using batons, security agents dispersed a nighttime pro-democracy demonstration late Wednesday by an estimated 2,000 students at the Aleppo University campus, Reuters reports. Previous demonstrations in recent weeks have only involved a few hundred students, according to the BBC.
Security forces that moved in were helped by students loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the BBC said. There were reports that a main road leading from the city center to the campus, in the west of Aleppo, had been closed.
The protest began near university dormitories, with students demanding that the military halt its brutal siege on the cities of Homs, Deraa and Banias, a witness told Reuters. These cities have been the major flashpoints of defiance against the rule of President Assad.
On Wednesday, at least 19 people were killed, including an eight-year-old boy, amid an escalating crackdown by police and military on anti-regime protests. Tanks shelled a residential area of the city of Homs and nearby villages, while clashes were also reported in Deraa, where the unrest began in mid-March.
Human rights groups estimate that as many as 800 civilians have died since protests began on March 18, while at least 8,000 have been arrested. Officials dispute the civilian death toll, and say that about 100 soldiers have been killed.
The Syrian government insists that it is fighting "armed terrorist gangs."
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the crackdown “barbaric,” AFP reports
"These repressive measures — namely the ongoing campaign of arbitrary arrests, the denial of medical care to wounded persons, the inhumane conditions of detainees — are barbaric measures that amount to collective punishment of innocent civilians,” he said.
Toner added that "we don't throw the word 'barbaric' around here very often" but that in this case, "the window is narrowing for the Syrian government to shift focus from its outright repression towards meeting the legitimate aspirations of its people."