BEIRUT – A renowned political cartoonist whose drawings expressed Syrians’ frustrated hopes for change was grabbed after he left his studio early Thursday and beaten by masked gunmen who broke his hands and dumped him on a road outside Damascus.

One of Syria’s most famous artists, Ali Ferzat, 60, earned international recognition and the respect of many Arabs with stinging caricatures that infuriated dictators including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and, particularly in recent months, Syria’s autocratic Assad family.

He lay badly bruised in a hospital bed Thursday with his hands swathed in bandages, a stark reminder that no Syrian remains immune to a brutal crackdown on a five-month anti-government uprising.

Ferzat remembers the gunmen telling him that “this is just a warning” as they beat him, a relative said.

“We will break your hands so that you’ll stop drawing,” the masked men said, according to the relative, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.

Before inheriting Syria’s presidency from his father in 2000, Bashar Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, used to visit Ferzat’s exhibitions and offer encouraging words, the artist has said.

When the new president opened Syria to reforms, Ferzat was allowed to publish the country’s first private newspaper in decades, a satirical weekly called The Lamplighter.

The paper was an instant hit, with copies of each issue selling out a few hours after hitting the stands. It was soon shut down, however, as Assad began cracking down on dissent and jailing critics after the brief, heady period known as the Damascus Spring quickly lost steam.

Ferzat became a vehement critic of the regime, particularly after the military ltaunched a brutal crackdown on the country’s protest movement. He drew cartoons about the uprising and posted the illustrations on his private website, providing comic relief to many Syrians who were unable to follow his work in local newspapers because of a ban on his drawings.

His illustrations grew bolder in recent months, with some of his cartoons directly criticizing Assad, even through caricatures of the president are forbidden in Syria.

This week, he published a cartoon showing Assad with a packed suitcase, frantically hitching a ride with a fleeing Gadhafi. Another drawing showed dictators walking a long red carpet that leads them, in the end, to a dustbin.

The response was swift. Ferzat, who usually works late into the night, left his studio at 4 a.m. Thursday, but a jeep with tinted windows quickly cut him off, according to the relative. Four masked gunmen then dragged him out of his car, bundled him into the jeep and drove him to the airport road just outside Damascus, beating him and making threats all the while.

The men then singed the artist’s beard, put a bag over his head and dumped him on the side of the road.