By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces stepped up raids across the country to arrest activists on Sunday after one of the bloodiest weeks in the six-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, residents and activists said.
Dozens of people were seized in house-to-house raids in the eastern tribal province of Deir al-Zor, in the southern Hauran Plain and in villages around the city of Hama, which was among the hardest hit by armored assaults on protest flashpoints.
A lawyer from the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of the revolt against 41 years of Assad family rule, said he saw dozens of troops encircling the nearby village of Yadouda.
"I saw them by accident and fled. I heard that they later went into houses. They can come at any minute and raid and arrest," the lawyer, who asked not to be named, said by phone.
He said detainees could expect ill-treatment or worse.
"You either disappear and are never heard from again, come back red and blue with holes in your body from beatings and torture to make an example of you or simply return in a coffin."
Syrian authorities do not comment on arrests or allegations of torture but have said in the past that any arrests are made in accordance with the constitution. They say they are fighting armed gangs who have killed at least 500 security personnel.
The United Nations says 2,200 people have died in the uprising that erupted in mid-March, while a Syrian grassroots organization says security forces have killed 3,000 civilians.
Syria has banned most independent journalists, making it hard to verify accounts of the violence from either side.
The Syrian Human Rights Organization Sawasiah said at least 113 civilians were killed last week in military raids and in gunfire aimed at protesters, including a family of five in Homs.
It said in a statement that three activists also died from apparent torture in prison in what it said was an increased drive by the authorities to eliminate street protest leaders.
"Last week saw unprecedented repression. The rights of many Syrians to live free of physical harm has been confiscated, among them women, children and elderly people," it added.
Syrian demonstrators, while opposed to any foreign military intervention, have begun demanding international protection.
The Arab League's secretary-general said after visiting Damascus on Saturday that he had agreed with Assad on unspecified measures to end the bloodshed which would be presented to an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.
Nabil Elaraby also said he had urged Assad to "speed up reform plans through a timetable that will make every Syrian citizen feel that he has moved to a new stage."
Assad's opponents say previous reforms announced by Assad, such as ending emergency law, have made no difference.
The West, which had courted Assad before the uprising, has increased sanctions on the ruling elite. The European Union plans tougher steps against the Syrian oil sector, which is linked to Assad and his relatives, following a U.S. embargo.
But there has been no hint in the West of any appetite for military action along Libyan lines. Majority Sunni Syria has three times Libya's population and its political system is dominated by Assad and members of the minority Alawite sect.
Upsetting Syria's ruling system would have major regional repercussions, given Sunni disquiet over Assad's alliances with Iran's Shi'ite clerical rulers and with the Lebanese Shi'ite guerrilla group Hezbollah led by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
Assad has backed anti-Israel militant groups but has kept up his father's policy of avoiding a direct confrontation with Israeli troops occupying the Golan Heights since a 1973 war.
Southeast of the Golan, in the town of Hirak in Deraa province, Ahmad al-Sayyed, a resident, said Syrian troops had been carrying out daily swoops to quell dissent.
"They have stepped up arrests in towns that have seen heavy protests and that have managed to send video feeds to al-Jazeera (satellite TV channel)," he said.
Listing the latest raids, Sayyed said at least 250 people had been detained in Jeeza, 40 in Museifra, 50 in Busra al-Harir and 30 in Naimeh in the last 48 hours.
"They shoot in the air before they begin raids. They then drag young men and use electric sticks to beat them up and haul them away to detention centers," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, headed by dissident Rami Abdelrahman, said a 40-year-old woman was killed by bullets fired by security forces at random in the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border while they were pursing wanted people.
In the Damascus suburb of Darayia, residents said 17-year-old Ahmad Kamal Ayrout died of wounds sustained when security forces fired at a funeral on Saturday for Ghayath Matar, an activist who died in prison from apparent torture.
"Ghayath was 25. He used to organize campaigns to clean the streets while he was growing up. In recent protests in Darayia he used to give flowers to soldiers. He was arrested last week and his body returned with torture marks to his family," said an activist in Darayia who did not want to be named.
A YouTube video purportedly of Matar's body showed a youth in a coffin with red and brown marks on his chest and stomach.
"He was an outspoken voice for non-violence and they still killed him," the activist in Darayia said.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Alistair Lyon)