Cuban government supporters attacked more than 40 members and supporters of Ladies in White in what a spokeswoman called the worst violence against the Havana group since the Catholic Church interceded in their behalf last spring.

Spokeswoman Berta Soler said the mob punched, slapped and kicked the women, spit on them, pulled their hair and ripped some of their clothes to break up the women’s attempt to stage a street protest Thursday.

Several of the 42 women who were attacked reported bruises on their arms and legs but none required medical treatment, Soler and Ladies in White leader Laura Pollán reported Friday by phone from their homes in Havana.

Pollán said the women left her home after their monthly gathering for a “literary tea” for a march to protest violent attacks on the Ladies in White branch in the eastern city of Santiago over the past four weeks.

Forty-seven women had gathered at the house but five did not go out because of age and health issues, she said. Another eight women were detained and taken away by police near her house Thursday morning to keep them from joining the gathering. They were freed later.

Soler said Thursday’s attack was the harshest in Havana since March of last year, when the Catholic Church urged the government to halt an increasingly violent string of aggressions against the women during their regular Sunday protests

“This was a very violent act by the government,” she said, adding that the harassments against the Ladies in White, who demand the release of all political prisoners, have been growing more violent since December.

Cuban dissidents are reporting increased government repression across the island this year, amid speculation that the government is applying a tough hand as it tries to enact ambitious and risky reforms to overhaul the island’s economy.

“I think the government feels that it is lost and has no options, and is using these terrorist actions against a defenseless population” to keep Cubans in check, said Soler.

Soler said the men in plainclothes who directed Thursday’s mob were known to the women as officers of the so-called Confrontation Department, the branch of the Interior Ministry in charge of tracking dissidents and averting their activities.

The Ladies in White, who won the prestigious Sakharov human rights prize in 2005, want to urge Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega to intercede as he did last year, Soler said. But he’s out of the country and not expected back until after Aug. 23.

Ortega’s intercession meant the Havana women are the only dissidents allowed to stage regular street protests — every Sunday after mass at the Santa Rita church — by a government that has long claimed “the streets belong to Fidel” Castro.

Government-organized mobs have used violence to keep the women’s branch in Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, from marching after mass there in what members acknowledge is a campaign to win their own right to take to the streets.

An editorial Friday in the Boston Globe newspaper, meanwhile, noted that Syria is not the only place where “dictatorial rulers have been bloodying their critics” and criticized the attacks by “pro government goons” against the Ladies in White.

Castro “has nothing to fear from them but their integrity and moral authority. That, however, they have in abundance, while the ruthless regime over which Castro and his brother Fidel have presided for more than half a century has long since lost any claim to the respect or admiration of the free world,” it added.

A Cuban website, meanwhile, published a column saying that a machete attack on a dissident in Guantánamo last month was the “spontaneous” work of a government supporter and was not ordered by the government.

Ernesto Carrera Moreno was hospitalized with a cracked skull after he was attacked by a man identified as an official in the municipal directorate of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

The column said Cuban security forces do intervene to protect dissidents “from the people’s anger” but added: “Nevertheless, there is a reality: Our people will always respond to any provocation that offends their principles and damages the peace of citizens.”

The column was signed by Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy, a Guatemalan living in Havana who has acknowledged working for Cuban intelligence. It was published on the web site of the government-run Radio Habana.

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