Syrian security forces killed at least eight civilians on Sunday in raids on restive northwestern towns, residents and activists said, while the authorities blamed armed gangs for a bus ambush that killed nine people.
The civilian deaths were reported in rural Hama and the adjacent province of Idlib, both areas that have seen intensified raids and arrests of people involved in popular unrest since last week's defection of Hama's attorney general.
Activists said the authorities suspected Judge Adnan Bakkour was in hiding in the countryside around Hama.
A local activist said hundreds of security men were conducting house to house searches in villages around Bakkour's home town of Kfar Banouza and arresting scores of people.
Bakkour, who according to the authorities was kidnapped by gunmen last Monday, has said in a statement broadcast via YouTube that he had resigned because security forces had killed 72 jailed protesters and activists at Hama's central prison on the eve of a military assault on the city on July 31.
He said at least another 420 people were killed in the operation and were buried in public parks.
Two residents contacted by Reuters in Hama province said busloads of security forces had gone to Khan Sheihkon, a town 50 km (30 miles) north of Hama, searching for scores of army deserters who may have fled to their home towns in recent weeks.
Most army conscripts are from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and many come from rural areas shaken by military efforts to crush six months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
Army commanders and security chiefs are mostly from Assad's minority Alawite sect.
The state news agency SANA said six military personnel and three civilian employees were killed and 17 wounded when an "armed terrorist group" ambushed their military bus near the town of Mhardat in rural Hama. It said three of the gunmen were killed during a chase.
Assad has repeatedly said he is fighting agents of what he calls a foreign plot to divide Syria.
Syrian authorities have expelled most foreign media, making it difficult to verify events in the country.
Demonstrators have been encouraged by the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and rising international pressure on Syria, including a European Union embargo on Syrian oil exports.
Northwestern regions that include the cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib have seen an uptick in daily protests and raids.
Residents said prominent local activists Najati Tayara and Mustafa Rustum were among scores arrested in the Deir Balba and Khalideyah districts of Homs and in Hama province, as well as in the southern border city of Deraa, cradle of the uprising.
"They are raiding homes in search of wanted activists and army deserters in Jeza and across several towns in the south," said Ahmad Hariri, a resident of Herak where more than 1,000 women and children demonstrated for the release of detainees.
"We want the detainees," women could be heard chanting during the telephone call.
ReutersLast Mod: 04 Eylül 2011, 18:19