Cracks appeared in the Syrian regime Thursday with the resignations of members of the ruling Baath Party and continuing reports of divisions in the military before another showdown with protesters expected Friday.
About 200 people have resigned from the Baath Party in the last two days to protest the government's violent response to the unrest. Most of the resignations came from party members in the cities of Dara and Baniyas, which have been opposition hot spots.
"My resignation was a message and duty," former party member Mohammad Sheghri said in Baniyas. "Security officials clearly abused peaceful and unarmed protesters. This ruthless violation and oppression of citizens has never been something the Baath Party stood for."
There were also continuing reports of dissent within the armed forces. A Dara resident said an entire army unit, either a division or brigade, had broken off and was hiding among the people.
His claim could not be verified. Syrian state media Thursday quoted an unnamed military official dismissing such reports as a "media distortion," affirming the unity of the armed forces in the face of "conspiracies."
Access to the protest sites has largely been denied to foreign journalists.
The pro-democracy movement erupted in Dara six weeks ago after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers accused of writing political graffiti opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It soon spread across the country.
The Dara resident, reached Thursday by satellite phone, said 42 people had been killed by security forces in the city since Monday, when the army's 4th Armored Division, led by Assad's brother Maher, stormed the city. Residents described the military assault as a "massacre" and complained of acute shortages of food and fuel.
"They are shelling us from the south," said the resident, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns. "We have no milk, no gas, no light, no electricity; they have cut everything."
He said the army and shabiha, plainclothes pro-government gunmen who have played a central role in the crackdown, filled the streets.
One witness, Mohamad Homsi, told the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera that three women who were caught bringing milk for children into the city were forced to kiss the feet of the soldiers before they were allowed to pass.
"Our children are dying of hunger," Homsi said on air shortly before the station announced that it had suspended operations in Syria in response to "restrictions and attacks on its staff."
Elsewhere in the country, authorities clamped down on movement and communication as activists and government forces prepared for Friday prayers, often followed by massive antigovernment protests.
Video posted on the Internet appeared to show government forces opening fire on a crowd in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, felling several people. The video was uploaded Thursday but could not be confirmed.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is expected to hold an emergency session Friday to draft a resolution calling on the Syrian government and its supporters to cease the use of violence against protesters. Syrian rights organization Sawasiah reported thousands arrested and more than 500 civilians killed so far, according to Reuters news agency.
Even Syria's former allies Turkey and Iran appear to be growing uncomfortable with the crackdown. Istanbul, Turkey, has hosted a series of high-profile meetings among the Syrian opposition, and a group of prominent poets and writers from around the region Thursday issued a statement from there condemning the "massacres committed by the Syrian regime against the unarmed civilians."
In another sign that it is less than pleased with its neighbor, Turkey also sent a delegation headed by National Intelligence Agency Undersecretary Hakan Fidan and State Planning Organization Undersecretary Kemal Madenoglu to Damascus, the Syrian capital, Thursday to discuss the "recent incidents," Turkey's semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported.
Turkey and Syria maintain healthy trade and diplomatic relations and sending security and trade officials could be seen as a veiled warning to Syria.
Lutz and Hajjar are special correspondents.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.